Voting systems like the one used on this website inevitable provoke follow-up ideas like this: Why not have a rating site for website promotion, you enter an URL and people vote on it. You could learn from the positive and the negative feedback.
Or like this: Why not let companies introduce their products on a website and let people vote on them. This way, both the companies benefit (from higher profits) and the users (from better products and more transparency).
Let us examine what these ideas have in common: There is a certain good, be it information, be it services, be it material products, and the quality of this product is supposed to be decided by the people that use it. We are talking about rating systems here. Is this something new? Yes, definitely. Let me explain why.
Only 10 years ago, there were two main outlets for information about products people are supposed to buy, books they are supposed to read, etc.: Other people and mass media. The problem with other people is the scope of normal inter-human communications. The information you can obtain is limited, you can only inquire one person at a time, and only one person at a time can give you a recommendation (unless you are in a room filled with people).
Then there are mass media. They are a truly great way of communicating an idea, but they are controlled by relatively few people. There are the big media companies ABC, MSNBC, FOX, Murdoch, Bertelsmann, and there are the corporations which pay for advertising. The goal of the people behind the media and the corporations is to collectively make you buy what they produce and deliver, regardless of its real quality. With enough effort, they can even make you buy/believe complete crap you'll never need. This is dangerous even for the companies themselves, since mass media controlled by few people have a tendency to cover up problems instead of examining them.
Like the Greenhouse Effect: Instead of reducing CO2 emissions, companies pay PR flacks to say that it doesn't exist, produce pseudo-scientific videos, bribe mainstream media to print/not to print certain stories, etc. etc. Or the effects of tobacco on health: Hundreds of pseudo-scientific studies are produced, mass media are used as an outlet for obvious lies, etc. In both cases, company CEOs and their children will inevitably become the victims of their own propaganda: They will live in a world with a depleted ozone layer, with global warming, they might get lung cancer from smoking. Do they believe in their own lies? Yes, of course. They have no other choice since they try to stifle the sources of all contradicting information.
Now, in the year 2000 (that's the time I write this), the Internet gives us the solution to this problem, but we, the people, have to build it. Using the Net, we can bring thousands, even millions of people together, all in one virtual room, and they can all listen to each other. Big corporations like AOL are not interested in letting people make their own, unbiased decisions. Instead, they want to use the Internet like they would use TV: Broadcasting messages and hoping that many people buy them. Broadcasting more "targeted" messages, but still, pre-fabricated euphemisms, lies and empty promises.
The alternative? We're using it. A system that allows users to vote on a particular subject, no matter what. You can vote on the quality of products, services, ideas, art, whatever. What we need is a universal rating system, decentralized, uncontrollable, uncensorable, unfloodable. Why decentralized, why not a site like Slashdot or kuro5hin or this one, just for more categories? Simple: Because companies will try to go after opinions they don't like. Nothing like "Microsoft sucks", that is harmless. But opinions like "Microsoft works with the NSA" or "Nestle is responsible for the death of children in Africa" or "Monsanto threatens Third World Countries' farmers' access to seeds" or whatever (these are just examples), especially when they are based on clear and obvious facts. These are the things that large corporations are afraid of and that they will try to censor.
That's why we need a decentralized system that uses the technology of the Net to bring as many people as possible together to decide on the quality of the services offered in the marketplace. How could such a system be designed? It would have to be implemented into the ones that are being developed right now, like FreeNet and Gnutella. See my other post on "Distributed dynamic databases" for some of the basic concepts that are, IMHO, required. It would have to give users the opportunity to rate anything, including other ratings and the people that write them, to filter products according to ratings of a certain value, by all persons, or by certain persons. Or to see only new ratings.
It would have to be free, open-source, cross-platform and easy-to-use. It would have to be browsable by a multitude of possibly predefined categories. It would have to be as anonymous as possible.
The fact that this site works, that kuro5hin.org works, that other sites that offer ratings, like Amazon.com, work, shows that the need for them exists. Sooner or later a large corporation will come along and try to monopolize this technology. They will let companies buy a high rating for their products, and they will censor unpopular opinions if "necessary". Some booksellers already do this with their book reviews. Since they will claim copyright to all ratings/reviews posted by their users, they will be able to go after every other service that offers them.
We have to be faster, better, cheaper (sorry, NASA). Everyone who is interested in participating in designing the future should join the FreeNet project, especially the mailing list(s), and bring in their ideas. Of course you may also start your own, but FreeNet already has the technology for anonymity, what it lacks are ratings and broadcasts (I will talk about broadcasts some other time). And, of course, micropayment, but that is too far away. You should also take a look at Filetopia (www.filetopia.com), which is (supposed to be) somewhat like OpenNap, a distributed network of central servers. Easier to censor than a totally distributed net, but in many respects much easier to code. Filetopia also encrypts all communications (file transfers, chats, instant messages, email). I have talked to the author and he wants to implement some sort of ratings in a future version.
Even if you disagree with the details, I think we all agree on one thing: The technology for letting people voice their opinions in an organized and effective manner (i.e. through ratings attached to certain chunks of information that describe a product, idea, service, ..) is a) necessary b) must be built and controlled by the people that use it.