One oddity that’s been fascinating me, is that in pretty much every educational system in every country, the teaching of languages has been centered on grammar.
That’s interesting, because out of every possible way there is of acquiring a new language, in my experience grammar is the least efficient. My method of choice (one among quite a few possibilities) consists in memorizing lots of simple sentences containing frequently used words, which provides me with in-context (and thus reusable) vocabulary. There are even tools out there to help you do that near-optimally. Turns out that about 3000 sentences (representing as many words), plus a lot of hours of oral and written practice are enough to give you a surprisingly strong conversational ability. And that’s merely a “15-minutes per day over one year” formula. It does work: I just did that with Japanese and I am now happily working in Japan. I also did 9 years of German grammar at school when I was younger, to utterly no avail.
So why teach grammar of all things? Why this universal and systematical focus on what works least, on what is the worst at serving the purpose of teaching —providing students with actual skills? From an evolutionary point of view, the reason as I see it is simple. Turns out the system is not better off if students walk out mastering a language or not. The system is better off if it makes life easier for the people implementing it —the teachers and students. At the end of the day, grammar is what is most adapted to the “one-teacher in front of a bunch of students” model. By far. Grammar is the part of a language that can be “explained” in a professor-to-student interaction. In real life you don’t need a teacher to learn a language the efficient way —you need an Internet app, and some native pals to practice your skills with. But in the classroom, grammar is the way of least friction.
But this seemingly absurd disconnection doesn’t stop to language teaching.
If you look out there, so many things have followed the same path —spontaneously evolving not toward better serving their Purpose but toward better serving their working mechanism, their Engine. That’s the way of Darwinism: the fitness function of any system is set by what implements it, by what is responsible for bringing the system to life. Politics serves the interest of politicians and the system. The evolution of a species serves its survival and spread —the Engine behind the very existence of the species.
So many things have followed the same path —spontaneously evolving not toward better serving their Purpose but toward better serving their working mechanism, their Engine.
The only way for a human-made system to work properly is for the two —the purpose and the fitness function, the “engine”— to be correlated. In economics, a working version of capitalism would do a pretty good job at that. Take consumer tech, for instance: its innovations serves sales and only sales —the interest of the people who are working in consumer tech. But sales are strongly correlated to how the products serve the interest of the consumers, so the system ends up evolving toward better consumer satisfaction. Which was its initial “purpose”, as seen from a wider perspective. All that matters is to preserve and develop this correlation between sales and consumer satisfaction, between Engine and Purpose… sadly, most regulations seem to work towards the opposite.
Now, what about the next paradigm in human evolution, the Internet? What is its Purpose, and what is its Engine?
The beauty of the thing is that both are up to us. We stand at this special edge of History where we are free to set a Purpose, and build the Engine accordingly.
It starts with a choice.
We have this vision of an Internet that empowers us to create. A web of great contents focused on personal and collective development. That is the Purpose we want to fulfill.
Today, the engine of the web, the motivation that pushes users to contribute, is two-faced.
On one hand, content meant for consumption by our relatives, by our social graph, originates most often from a need for self-construction under one of its forms. And certainly self-construction has the potential to be a force for better contents and human development. All is well with the world.
On the other hand, a thirst for ad-generated revenue is at the source of most contents supposedly of public interest. Obviously there are a number of huge exceptions to this, namely Open Source and related non-greedy initiatives (such as this blog), as well as content monetized either more directly or more subtly than through ads. But at the end of the day advertising is still what’s propelling most of the Internet today.
At the heart of this model are the tools that have made Traffic synonym with Dollars: Google Search and AdSense. Actually it goes even further —today thanks to Google, Traffic is also vastly synonym with Search Engine Optimization. The perspective of making some extra bucks by producing a few Google-optimized pages is what is behind most of the websites you’ve been visiting so far. If only because you’ve accessed a lot of them through Google. I don’t know about you, but most of the people I know that have put pages online have done so solely for the AdSense money.
The perspective of making some extra bucks by producing a few Google-optimized pages is what is behind most of the websites you’ve been visiting so far
Over the past few years the relevance and quality of Google-propagated content has been dramatically decreasing. The culprits are not webmasters, the culprit is simply this Google-crafted web-building Engine that is utterly uncorrelated from the Purpose of quality and creation. The recent Google algorithm changes, meant to push content-farms down its search results, are temporary palliatives that will not fix the problem, but merely attenuate the symptoms. As long as the motivation behind most of the new “content” being produced and uploaded is still dollars obtained through Google-optimization, then the Internet is doomed. One morning the Google guys will wake up to find out that there is no more algorithm tweak to hack to improve relevancy, because the entire Internet has become a content-farm, rehashing the same old mainstream, attention-catching, Google-optimized “content”.
But this grim future doesn’t have to be ours. We don’t have to live in a Google/AdSense world. There are ways to correlate the Engine —money— and the Purpose —value. We believe in a web in which content-propagation, and thus monetization, would be based on quality and relevancy as evaluated through a meritocratic and open assessment from the crowd itself. You can’t game people’s minds like you game PageRank.
Deep down, advertising is a means for content-propagation and discovery. It’s got the potential to be a window open on great value. We tend to forget that because we’re used to a world where ads rely on distraction and aggressive attention-grabbing, and couldn’t be any further from the notion of bringing value to users. As a result, the typical click-through rate is at a staggering 0.2% —for every 1000 users seeing an ad, 2 will click on it. And what percentage of users are clicking by mistake? Ads are fighting for your click, and the battlegrounds are acres and acres of virtual real estate on the margins of low-content SEO-ed pages. A lot of the web today is a disaster area.
On this scorched and blook-soaked pixellated earth, where the focus and IQ of countless visitors has been fed raw to white-teeth-obsessed, click-thirsty gods, we see a land of opportunity. We believe we can leverage a new conception of advertising, that would be in the hands of users, to serve quality content propagation. We can build advertising tools that implement a meritocratic and open crowd-assessment system. We can make Value synonym of Money. The opportunity is huge —anybody has the potential to be a value producer, all is needed is a little incentive. The web should empower people to create, and advertising could be a means towards that. There is currently very little reward to producing actual value and just that, what gets rewarded these days is SEO, and distracting users with irrelevant, aggressive ads. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The opportunity is huge —anybody has the potential to be a value producer, all is needed is a little incentive. What gets rewarded these days is SEO and aggressively distracting users. It doesn’t have to be that way
We would like to introduce a first step in that direction.
LigerTail is a billboard widget that makes a potential advertiser out of any visitor.
The widget allows everyone to submit links —anyone’s voice can be heard. An open door to spam? Why would it be? Anyone can also moderate that space, getting rid of poor quality and irrelevant content.The widget thus effectively implements a form of crowd-sourced, self-organized quality assessment.
Ar for the big question —money. Spots can be paid for by anyone anywhere. Such spots are given a small amount of click-through’s before they are subject to the tiered relevancy algorithm. By clicking the pay for placement link, any user can access the analytics relative to that spot.
Because spots are reserved on an individual basis, and because advertisers will be fully aware of the moderation system, the widget will only attract relevant advertisement. At the same time, quality content creators will be rewarded: properties having a high degree of relevancy relatively to a particular crowd will end up being highly valued by independent advertisers. The games thus ceases to gravitates around sheer traffic numbers alone and becomes a matter of quality of traffic. AdSense never fully managed relevancy because it leveraged mere keywords and machine learning —but self-organization and the power of the crow can succeed where Google’s algorithms failed.
The vision here is to open up advertisement space and foster a community that values it as its own forum
The vision here is to open up advertisement space and foster a community that values it as it’s own forum. Poor quality and irrelevant content will not be seen, beginning with classical advertising, and quality and relevant content will receive preference. The widget is the first step. Once advertising is relevant, the line between it and other content blurs, and we can move towards integrating it in a meaningful way.
We believe in an Open world where value creation would be rewarded and where anyone could express their potential as value creators. The Internet bears the promise of fostering such a world —but first, we need to deliberately correlate the Engine of content production (monetary and psychological incentives) with our Purpose —Quality.
We need to deliberately correlate the Engine of content production (monetary and psychological incentives) with our Purpose —Quality
Because it does just that, opening up advertisement in a radical way has the potential to be the first step into a better future.
Follow François Chollet on Twitter (@fchollet)