Take a moment and think about this:
Imagine influence online wasn’t based on how many followers you have, or how many likes or retweets you get, but instead on your relationship to information: how well-informed, helpful, and balanced you are.
The more you learn, the kinder you are, the more nuanced your arguments - the bigger your influence.
What would the internet look like then? What about the world?
These are the questions that inspired our wildly audacious vision, and how the idea of Readocracy was born.
Readocracy is a portmanteau of “reading”, and “meritocracy” / “democracy”.
It’s exactly what the name suggests: what you read (along with other forms of learning, like podcasts), and how helpful your sharing is to what others read and learn, is rewarded and recognized above all else.
I know what you’re thinking: it sounds almost laughably detached from today’s internet experience. It reminds us how bad the current online experience is. Which is why it matters so much. Readocracy is an effort to reclaim the internet, for our minds and our society. To make reason and balance the new normal.
Of course, it also introduces many concerns: who decides what’s a good source of information? What if you can’t access the right information? How do you know if somebody actually read something? Or understood what they read?
All good questions, and Readocracy accounts for all of them. Answers to these and more at the end of this post.
For now, let’s take a quick dive into the philosophy behind the name - from democracy, to epistocracy, to free speech and free reach. Whether you’re a citizen, a technologist, or a policy shaper, this should help you see the internet in a whole new light.
Learning from old ideas, creating new forms
Democracy and the internet
A healthy democracy relies on an open, trustworthy information commons.
Today, the internet is that information commons. It is the nervous system of our modern society. They who hold the keys to the internet, hold the keys to society. Elections around the world are showing us this is undeniably true.
So who gets to hold the keys? How is power amassed online? What are the rules to protect the nervous system of our society, of our collective minds?
This is where we begin.
Rather than think of the internet as something democracy depends on, we should think of it, itself, as a social and political system within the whole. As a place. Today, it’s arguably the world that is defined by the internet, not the other way around.
So let’s start with how we got it all wrong.
On February 8, 1996, philosopher and internet pioneer John Perry Barlow published A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. It was a rallying cry for the modern web. Looking back, it shows us the difference between what we’d like the internet to be, and what it has become instead.
Most importantly, it introduced the idea of the internet as its own world, with its own ideals and rules.
He wrote that only one rule would govern the internet:
We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonwealth, our governance [of the internet] will emerge. [...] The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule.
The Golden Rule is also known as “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” We know exactly how that is applied online. It’s not. The rule doesn't matter when nobody follows it, and when the worst actors are the most influential, the most destructive, and free of repercussions. We have to ask ourselves why. More on that later.
We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.
All may enter, yet we now know that economic power can very much buy your way to relevance, and the essentially non-existent code of internet conduct has enabled keyboard warriors to unleash some of the most vile prejudiced statements and harassment.
In China, Germany, France, Russia, Singapore, Italy and the United States, you are trying to ward off the virus of liberty by erecting guard posts at the frontiers of Cyberspace. These may keep out the contagion for a small time, but they will not work in a world that will soon be blanketed in bit-bearing media.
Looking back, it’s fascinating to see how a mirror image of Barlow’s concerns emerged: In 2020, we now know Italy and the United States, along with many other nations, have faced or been downright consumed by malicious political influence, directly as a result of the internet. To say nothing of our collective liberty when the medium has been co-opted for addictive manipulation and mass surveillance. A world blanketed in bit-bearing media now sounds ominous.
The internet is real life. The politics of our internet, are the politics of the world.
Finally, Barlow also wrote,
In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat.
He spoke, admirably, of censorship. But how much flying will you do, if the system optimizes for choking, not flying?
With the benefit of hindsight, Barlow shows us it is not enough to be idealistic. We need to be realistic and foresee the vulnerabilities of the commons to protect it. Never has this been more urgent than now, with the internet dictating the narrative of our society as a whole.
Democracy, the internet, and free speech vs. free reach
A functioning democracy goes hand in hand with free speech. This is true. What this does not take into account is the internet’s power as a limitless megaphone - one that can be bought and manipulated.
“Free speech does not equal free reach.” As Renee DiResta recently summed up: today people are trying to reframe distribution as speech, when it is actually reach.
Having the right to speak your mind, is very different from automatically also having the right to be heard, instantly, with minimal effort or consideration, by millions and millions of people at once. We already have a precedent for this: in every country, radio and television are governed by clear rules to protect listeners and society.
Put another way: having that sort of reach normally requires you to have some skin in the game, through relevant work, and faced with consequences if abused. Just because something is easy to do, doesn’t separate it from the magnitude of the results.
Pre-internet, if you tried to reach 20 million people with propaganda, it would draw attention and repercussions. If you deliberately directed tens of thousands of people to harass somebody, it would certainly have repercussions. Moreover, doing so while completely obscuring your identity would be virtually impossible. Today, online, these scenarios are commonplace.
It’s not that highly motivated propagandists haven’t existed before. It’s that the platforms make it possible to spread manipulative narratives with phenomenal ease, and without very much money.
Do we want this system for sale to the highest bidder? For democracy to be completely for sale, where you can reach any mind you want, target a lie to that specific population, and create culture wars? Do we want that?
We continue to think of the internet as some sort of abstract medium where the rules are different - while it simultaneously affects our offline reality, more perpetually, than anything else in the history of humanity ever has. What happens to society when our central source of information is flooded with noise and manipulation?
Talk to anyone about their internet experience, and you will almost universally hear that it is becoming impossible to separate the signal from the noise. What is the intellectual impact of that on our wellbeing or collective productivity?
If the internet is the intellectual air we breathe, we have allowed polluters to run rampant, under the guise of free speech.
So how do we maintain free speech, and the ability to wield this megaphone, but responsibly?
Taking a cue from Noocracy/ Epistocracy - but more reasonably
A quick primer:
Noocracy or "aristocracy of the wise", as originally defined by Plato, is a system of governance where decision making is in the hands of philosophers, similar to his idea of philosopher kings. This idea has taken on many forms since, all equally riddled with practical and philosophical challenges.
In the 19th century, John Stuart Mill proposed giving extra votes to citizens with university degrees or intellectually demanding jobs. This came at a time when less than 9% of British adults could vote, so it was actually in the spirit of expanding voting rights, especially to women, but doing so in a way that would protect against ignorance.
Of course, this concept has also been abused widely. In the United States, around the same time, elites who feared the ignorance of poor immigrants tried to restrict ballots. Similar efforts were pursued to disenfranchise African-Americans.
In 2008, political philosopher David Estlund coined the term Epistocracy, largely echoing the spirit of noocracy, and in 2016 Jason Brennan pushed it into the mainstream with his book Against Democracy. In 2018, Dambisa Moyo argued similarly in her book Edge of Chaos, for an update to the “one person, one vote” system.
One of the most popular arguments comes from the driver’s license analogy: you need to take a test to drive a car, but you don’t need to take any sort of test to affect the fate of your country? Similarly, why are children not allowed to vote, or felons, but others who exhibit poor judgment can? Why must immigrants take a citizenship test to qualify, yet nobody else does?
As Brennan wrote in Aeon,
One common objection to epistocracy – at least among political philosophers – is that democracy is essential to expressing the idea that everyone is equal. On its face, this is a strange claim. Yet people treat the right to vote like a certificate of commendation, meant to show that society regards you as a full member of the national club. (That’s one reason we disenfranchise felons.) But we could instead view the franchise as no more significant than a plumbing or medical licence. The US government denies me such licences, but I don’t regard that as expressing I’m inferior, all things considered, to others.
The common rebuttal to the driving analogy, is that bad driving is objectively identifiable, whereas bad voting is less so, because of how subjective the matter is. Furthermore, experts can be some of the most dogmatic in their perspectives.
This argument, however, seems to require a certain obliviousness to the state of the world right now. Once again, we are confronted with the undeniable relationship between the internet and the health of our society.
On average, almost all of the Top 10 posts circulated on Facebook come from known misinformation and polarization sources that intentionally distort and agitate the population. (See the "FacebooksTop10" account on Twitter, using Facebook’s own data via CrowdTangle.)
As Casey Newton wrote,
As the coronavirus pandemic raged across the United States, misinformation about vaccines and other health topics has been viewed an estimated 3.8 billion times on Facebook — four times more than authoritative content from institutions such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention...
This is not about debating the merits of a policy decision, it's about whether you can agree on fundamental truths to begin with. If somebody believes we are being controlled by 5G towers, or that the government is nothing more than a satanic child-eating cult - should such a person be allowed to exert their influence on the country? Particularly when those views were cultivated by groups who have their own agendas. Is unconditionally empowering the vote of such individuals not disproportionately empowering the "vote" of these caustic media influencers? Wouldn't a basic competency test diminish this undue influence?
Those who are more open to amending our democratic systems tend to view democracy as a tool, like a hammer, that is meant to be as effective as possible. Those who are against it tend to see democracy as a symbol of our fundamental inclusion and our equality.
Fortunately, we are not proposing anything so drastic as altering democracy, nor free speech, but only what allows people to have reach online - so that the majority of content and influence doesn’t continue to cause an ever-escalating crisis in society.
So let’s dig into how that reach is earned.
Our society is a meritocracy, but it is flawed in its current form. The internet is no different.
Meritocracy is such an intuitive concept that defining it feels redundant. It is the idea that social and economic rewards should track talent, effort, and achievement. Spots at the most prestigious educational institutions should go to the smartest kids; positions at the highest-paying firms should be given to the most-skilled workers.
A revolt against meritocracy has been building in recent years, accompanied by a growing shelf of books from across the ideological spectrum decrying how a system intended to open up opportunity has instead created an entrenched, self-perpetuating, self-satisfied ruling class.
The fundamental critique is that our society is not actually a meritocracy in practice, instead warped by elements of aristocracy, oligarchy, and corruption. Where achievement isn’t earned, but manipulated.
The internet today is no different. It’s currently a meritocracy that rewards hacks and sensationalism. So what can we do? Daniel Markovitz, author of The Meritocracy Trap, commented in an interview:
You have to be right that the best society is one where people get ahead by being good at things that are worth doing. And that sounds like a kind of meritocracy. On the other hand, one of the essential features of the sort of meritocracy we have today is intensive competition. … The kind of system that I want is one where social and economic life advantages are given to people who are “good enough” at the thing that they’re doing to be socially useful.
Which brings us to how we are inspired by Epistocracy, and meritocracy, but with Readocracy are flipping it on its head to address its biggest areas of concern.
Our adaptation, for the internet:
With Readocracy, our logic is simple, and our expectations very modest:
The internet is a system of information. The quality of your relationship to information, rather than the quantity, should define your ability to influence the system.
Under Readocracy, the time you invest with content anyways, the sharing and writing you do, all count as proof of work.
The platform allows you to effortlessly verify and catalog this time spent with content, and showcase whatever you’re comfortable making public in a single profile anyone can reference. A calling card for your information footprint, transparent and accountable, with minimal extra effort, on top of your existing habits.
It’s not about being an elite. It’s about simply being good enough. Have you even made an effort? Are you trying to be reasonable?
Information x work defines your speech; on the basis of that, deeper access and visibility can be earned which defines your reach, both directly, and through the context it provides to others. It’s as simple and easily accessible as that. Proof how you inform yourself, proof of how helpful (or not) you are, and how balanced you are within this behaviour. If you have access to the internet in the first place, your access to free, trusted information sources, on virtually any subject, is vast. Anyone can prove themselves.
- Through Readocracy, you can gate conversations, setting a reading requirement to be able to participate. E.g. to join a group, you have to have first done the required reading/listening/watching.
- By default, through Readocracy, you cannot share an article without having read it first. You also can’t reply to a shared article without reading it, either. This includes entire comments sections.
- Through Readocracy, if you haven’t verified your profile, including a photo of yourself, your reach is capped. You can request anonymity through context, somewhat like you can today already on Quora - which is to say, anonymity it earned, rather than a default.
- Through Readocracy people can see your subject relevance on a subject when you comment. “Bob hasn’t read anything about this subject before”, “Lisa gets 89% of her information from Fox News”, “Erik is well-read and well-balanced on this subject. 74 pieces of content, across 8 trusted sources”.
You can experience this, and more like it, on the Readocracy platform itself, or easily implement it in any website, app, or other platform.
It’s not about restriction, but rather the opposite. Readocracy is rooted in transparency and opportunity. Anyone can earn their way. In terms of democratic ideals, it’s the American Dream made digital, the polar opposite of what any totalitarian regime would want.
In other words anyone can speak up, but you earn the right to have far-reaching influence. In school they always tell you to “show your work”. What work do you have to show to justify your reach online?
Transparency as an expectation in society solves a lot. This applies up and down society. If you want to leverage the enormous world-gripping power of the web, you have to earn it with more than money. Whether you’re an advertiser, journalist, or simply a commenter. People should know your information reputation.
We need some algorithm that can reliably tabulate stats on media inaccuracy, political bias, and negativity bias and create rankings of news sources, so the market could better penalize these things (and reward integrity). Basically the concept of a carbon tax, but for media.— Tim Urban (@waitbutwhy) May 16, 2020
Sure, some people will fight back against this, because it exposes them. But for everyone else, it’s a reasonable ask.
This isn’t a matter of censorship, it’s a matter of passing a very, very low bar: can you prove you’ve even tried to inform yourself on the subject you’re sharing about, and in a balanced way? Do all your previous comments and tweets show a trend of harassment or spam, or instead constructive participation? Whether you do so having identified yourself, or anonymously matters - and anonymity can and should be earned. If you asked for the megaphone at a packed arena, you would need to identify yourself to use it, and likely need a track record to be trusted with it.
Is that so much to ask?
For those who cannot accept these terms, we have to ask, in turn: is this a matter of censorship being imposed, or laziness being chosen? At a certain point, it is hard to see opposition to such simple requirements as anything other than a cover for being able to act with impunity, no matter how careless or malicious.
Ultimately, Readocracy comes back to one key question, and those that follow: why should we trust you?
Why should you be empowered to impose your information on unsuspecting internet users across the globe, on our precious information commons, the nervous system of our society? What context will you provide to help those users make the right decisions in a flooded information landscape?
Readocracy aims to make it effortless to answer these questions.
Through Readocracy, what you invest your attention in, and how you solicit others to invest their attention, defines your social capital. It is an antidote for a system poisoned by careless volume, an anti-incentive to noise. Most of all, it is a way to align the incentives with the value of the system itself: quality of information and attention, instead of quantity of information and attention.
So that, in the words of John Perry Barlow, we can
...create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.
Questions (and answers)
Thanks for reading. If you found this useful or thought-provoking, there’s a lot more on the way, so please subscribe and share with your network.
If you’re down here looking for answers we alluded to earlier, you’re in the right place.
“But what about the quality of the source? Who decides what’s a good source? What if you can’t access the right information? Couldn’t this reinforce echo chambers in some ways, or be gamed? How can you tell if somebody really read something? How do you know if somebody actually understood what they read?”
The answers to your burning (and very good!) questions:
- We use third party, trusted fact-checker databases (MediaBiasFactcheck, and now also NewsGuard) to determine the value of a source, as well as verified industry leaders from various disciplines. The objective frameworks these partners use are the only basis for which we evaluate adjusting the value of a source. All rationale is publicly visible.
- You can earn your recognition using any of the information available in the world. Currently, paywalls gatekeep only a miniscule fraction of that.
- We have explicitly designed Readocracy to be a “Well-Roundedness Engine” rather than a polarization engine, like today’s social media platforms. It bursts echo chambers by design. You can learn more in our upcoming post, “Building a Well-Roundedness Engine”.
- Our technology can tell if a reader was actually paying attention, and how intensely, based on content analysis and behaviour patterns, all while being privacy-first. It has already processed over 100 million page views for a number of beta partners, and been deemed uniquely superior by leading content analysis and audience engagement researchers. We now also support the addition of books and podcasts, but that’s through more traditional means, and video verification will be available soon as well (again, in an extremely privacy-first way).
- Readocracy is very, very hard to game. Most of all, since profiles are meant to be used as public assets, falsifying how you inform yourself would only lead to uncomfortable questions and conversations. In short, you would draw attention to your actual lack of knowledge. That said, we are also implementing features that help you both improve and verify your understanding.
Have more questions? Great! You should find what you’re looking for here.