As consumer choice proliferates, people will rely even more on online reviews to inform their decisions. This makes reviews an increasingly powerful tool and valuable source of insight for individuals and businesses alike. The problem is that hundreds of millions of people are feeding their valuable insights currently into proprietary data silos of a few dominant platforms.
We all benefit from leveraging the experiences of others for our own decision-making. We feel an intrinsic need to share with others information about things we used and experienced, and to make use of such information ourselves before we invest resources.
In the past we relied mostly on our personal network to get recommendations for anything from restaurants, books, travel destinations, to appliances or services. With the advent of the internet it became possible to leverage a much larger group of people for this purpose. Forums and online communities sprung up where people from all over the world could share their opinions and experiences with millions of Internet users, influencing each others’ decisions through online word-of-mouth.
In addition, the opinions of customers in the form of online reviews have become crucial for businesses. Reviews impact businesses’ reputation, their ranking in search results, and ultimately their profitability, as consumers are willing to pay more for products for which reviews are available.
Companies such as Google, Yelp, Facebook, TripAdvisor, or TrustPilot have recognized this trend already years ago, and offered business listing platforms on which users could leave reviews as well as read other people’s reviews for free. By now, these services boast hundreds of millions of consumer reviews in their applications. The crowd-sourced data has become a well-guarded asset for these companies, based on which they predominantly generate revenues from advertising as well as from sharing the personal data of their users.
A threat to free competition and possibly to free will
As the amount of available review data is growing, and with it the dependence of people and organizations on the insights that can be generated from it, the restricted access to this data not only stifles innovation, but locks us in even further. The opportunities arising to create new products and technologies will only be open to those with access to the data, threatening free market competition, and possibly even free will.
Suppose all review data was openly accessible and could be shared freely. Something like a commons, available free of charge and without restrictions to all. Think of Wikipedia, the Internet Archive, or OpenStreetMap. Assume in addition that there was a way to let people write reviews without requiring them to provide any personal data; that people could create an identity within the open reviews ecosystem that they control (let’s call it a persona), and that cannot be linked to their real-world identity. Assume we could build probabilistic models that would algorithmically assess the reliability of a review based on the reputation of the persona that wrote it.
The potential for innovation would be multiplied by orders of magnitude compared to the current state in which only a small number of engineers at aforementioned companies have access to such data, partitioned across several silos.
Imagine how it would be if people could build their reputation in a privacy-preserving manner, not influenced by their gender, their sexual preferences, or the color of their skin, but purely based on their actions within the system, by how useful millions of other users find their content.
Imagine if everyone with an interesting idea for a new mapping or navigation service could integrate a reviews layer into their map, so that people looking for “a restaurant nearby” would not all have to use Google for it, but would actually have an alternative.
Imagine more people could experiment with AI-driven recommendation services that are privacy-preserving and respectful to the user. This would allow us to use this nascent technology more safely, and more to our genuine benefit than to the benefit of advertisers. From one open dataset containing insights from hundreds of millions of people such systems could compile more accurate recommendations than what is currently possible with the information silos we have. It could also surface interesting new niche products based on genuine popularity among people or the preferences you choose to set, instead of surfacing those items that have the highest advertising budget.
Most importantly, you would not have to choose whose service you want to trust based on the size of the network they control, but you could choose the product that has the highest technological merit — based on innovation and open access to data.
Recommendation services are already being marketed by Amazon, Google, Foursquare and others, mostly to the benefits of their advertising partners. These technologies are still in their infancy, but as they become better, people will start relying on them in order to manage complexity in their lives. Driven by pressure to generate profits combined with their reliance on advertising-based business models, we all might end up being at the mercy of closed-source algorithms that might bombard us with things to buy that we don’t need — but can’t resist.
Not having an alternative is, for me at least, a nightmare
To be able to use technology in a way that actually helps us and releases creative and innovative energy, I believe that we need to rethink some of the fundamental architectures that internet services are built on today. Most importantly, we need people to create alternatives.
The goal of Mangrove is to enable the creation of alternatives
Mangrove’s roadmap consists of three main steps:
- Create an open data format for reviews that can be shaped by the community to ensure easy interoperability.
- Build an open source infrastructure (server, aggregation algorithms, APIs) that can enable an ecosystem of applications to interact with the open dataset (e.g., navigation and mapping services, e-commerce services, local businesses, reputation management services, listing services for companies, books, charging stations, and others)
- Make it accessible and attractive to a large variety of users (UI, documentation, promotion).
Currently, we are working on steps (2) and (3), and hope to release a first demo soon, consisting of a web-based UI and an API.