NetSquared's picture

First off, I want to say that NetSquared has done some huge things really well, and I admire and appreciate that. There are a lot of exciting new tech tools around these days; NetSquared has sought out the people who want to use them for equally exciting purposes, people who look at these tools and see not just personal entertainment and networking but also liberation, meritocracy, and the chance to make the world a truly better place. They've found more of these people than anyone expected, and that's awesome. Both for issuing the call and publicizing it, NetSquared deserves a ton of credit.

There are also major frustrations for me, in terms of how much better this could be than it has been so far. I want to express these now, while they're fresh in my mind and before the winners are announced, so that once the announcement is made I (and NetSquared) can focus on those 20 projects. I tend to focus on the negative, because doing so is just so much more useful than focusing on the positive - I hope that people will understand that and take what I say here as an attempt to improve things, not tear them down.

3 frustrations, in order of importance:

1. The extreme lack of substantive dialogue on this website. By substantive dialogue, I specifically mean criticism, because praise is cheap and criticism is how things improve. The lack of criticism here has been nothing short of shocking. Look through people's project proposals and the comments on them; look through blog posts; look at what the Net2 staff themselves have written. You'll see a ton of self-promotion; a ton of mutual admiration; lots of people tearing their hair out over having "too many choices." You'll rarely see a substantive criticism of a project, and those you see never go more than a couple lines deep. Speaking personally, almost every single friend and potential donor I have talked to about GiveWell has given me more tough questions, and more to think about, than I have gotten out of the ENTIRE NetSquared experience cumulatively. A total of 3 people asked any questions at all on our project proposal page; only 1 of them stayed around for more than one round or asked anything beyond the very most basic questions ("How much transparency?", "Why do you need money?") I specifically sought out feedback in several comments, and the only response I got was of zero value (the defining disappointment of this experience).

I got a lot of praise for our project. That's worthless. That doesn't lead to improvement. The value of dialogue is to challenge, confront, and end up somewhere better than where I started. Every dinner-party conversation I've had about GiveWell has given me more of this than the entire NetSquared community. That's a major disappointment, because I really want thoughts on our project and I hoped our project would benefit from dialogue whether or not we made the top 20. That turned out not to be the case.

To be fair, there were a lot of projects to read, and I didn't leave comments on other people's - I tried to compromise by offering feedback to anyone who specifically requested it (two people did), but it wasn't the most convenient forum. I do think this problem of little substantive dialogue reflects on the design of the forum (see below) rather than necessarily on the people involved.

2. Netsquared's unexplained and unjustified faith in "its community." Bad online communities (flaming, chaos, randomness) outnumber good ones 300:1, but the good ones grow and take over the web and become famous through natural selection. That doesn't mean the wisdom of crowds doesn't exist - it means it is rare, and comes about through ingenious top-down design, not by default. NetSquared's community hasn't been designed, established, or selected in the way that all good online communities (Digg, Wikipedia, etc.) have been. Therefore, there is simply no reason to expect great things from it. I'm not trying to be a pessimist, just a realist. Good online communities are the exception, not the rule; NetSquared hasn't done any sort of investigation to determine which it's working with; yet there's been an assumption that this is a great online community (I'd argue that it isn't, at least as of now - see #1). It would have been easy to experiment - have a "crowd vote" worth 1 vote, for example - and try to assess the community before putting trust in it; but NetSquared opted instead for blind faith.

3. My blogging buddies hailing this as a "watershed event for democracy" before anything has, you know, happened. This is the least important, but most surprising, frustration, because I think Phil, Lucy and Sean are all smart people and I enjoy and respect their blogs (and it should be clear that I wouldn't say that if I didn't mean it). The watershed event for democracy isn't when someone proclaims an election, but when the system actually turns out to work, and that's something we just won't know in this case for a long time. We don't even know what projects were selected yet, or who voted we have no idea whether the selection process worked well. And of course, the real test will be 5-10 years down the line, when we evaluate whether the projects NetSquared sponsors are actual successes. It's one thing to say (as I did at the top) that NetSquared is a great idea and has generated an impressive level of participation. It's another to declare "mission accomplished" as the troops are piling into the boat.

If you come away from this post with one paragraph, please make it the first paragraph. It's easy to criticize and hard to do something well, and NetSquared has done the latter. And nothing's ever perfect I'm not surprised at all that the first attempt at building this online community hasn't resulted in good dialogue (as I said, building an online community is incredibly hard). I'm much more surprised that so many people have actively not recognized this difficulty, declaring a democratic revolution and trust in a community that doesn't yet exist. But it won't bother me as long as we abandon that attitude now, stepping back and treating the failures as learning experiences for next year. Either way, I hope to see as much discussion, criticism, and improvement as possible for whatever 20 projects are chosen.