Bubbalon: Social Ratings, Awful or Awesome?

Parents of kids of a certain age (and teenagers, for some strange reason) might be familiar with the Cartoon Network show Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends. One of the most memorable characters – and, let's face it, when it comes to kids' shows, "memorable" quite often means incredibly obnoxious – and a firm fan favorite is Cheese, who follows the main protagonists around constantly declaring "I like chocolate milk. I like potatoes. I like cereal" over and over and over again; something which kids will quite happily imitate, over and over and over again themselves.

This connects me, eventually, to Bubbalon, a site that I learnt about earlier today from a follow on Twitter, and, being in an unusually-receptive Follow Friday mood, I decided to take a look at the site, see what it was all about, and even suggested that after checking it out I might like to write a review. Bubbalon touts itself as a "Social Rating website". Yes, I can't believe they had the nerve to say that too. Apparently you can attach the word social in front of anything these days. Now, this is nothing new. I remember being involved in the beta program for Likaholix (now called mylikes), and at the time it was apparent that sites that allowed you to express opinions on products and services were, in fact, likely to be a way of gathering free market research – an advertiser's nirvana. Now I must admit, while I'm not quite fond of the idea that things like store loyalty cards may be used to gather data about my purchasing habits, subject it to statistical analysis, throw it into some huge data mining application and, apocryphally, mean that beer gets put on the grocery store shelves near the diapers, I don't mind feeding these sorts of services if I get something in return. This, after all, is why Google is so successful; their services become such an integral part of my online activity that I don't ever dream to think what it would be like without them, so, who cares if they slip in the odd ad or two? In the Likaholix beta, one appealing thing I discovered was, the more I liked, the more it tuned its recommendations to things it expected I would like, as well. I managed to discover (and indeed, rediscover) some exceptionally good music and video games as a result. The beta was interesting, although I must admit I got very fidgety when the sponsors and advertisers moved in.

What about Bubbalon? What's their vision? Well, direct from their FAQ, we have

Imagine this: your expressed views could influence the way our current social models work. We are standing on the brink of massive cultural and social changes, and Bubbalon is there to make that leap with you. The old world is based on dictatorship, non-transparency, rigidity and social divide. The new world that we are building on Bubbalon, is a total, complete opposite of that. Each Bubbalonian stands firmly for positive evolution, good social merit, total freedom, responsibility for one's actions, transparency and balance. We are working to make your views MATTER.

Sure. Right. Truthfully, I don't think there's a single Internet user who genuinely cares about this kind of nonsense about "social models", they're interested in what's in it for them, if they take part. Bubbalon's mechanism is simple. Either through search or through a cloud of suggested objects and ideas to rate, the user can pick, with a slider an accompanying smiley, their reaction on each object in Bubbalon's database from 0 to 100. More specific comments can be added in the form of a mini-review, which, guess what, is up to 140 characters in length. As an incentive to keep rating and commenting, each rating or comment awards the user karma points, with more karma being awarded if another user finds the comment helpful. The more karma points awarded, the more that can be done on the site, such as adding new objects to the system or even modifying existing ones. In the same way Likaholix suggested, the system is somewhat self-governing, because the best quality objects and entries "bubble" to the top, hence the site's name.

So, what is the reward, for this constant rating of objects and writing micro-reviews of such concepts as Starbucks, or "Ridiculous Article Titles?". Here, essentially, is the place where things fall apart for me. Bubbalon does not use my ratings to suggest other objects to me, in the same way Likaholix did, but to suggest users. This seems, on the surface, utterly bizarre, wanting me to construct yet another follower/following network on yet another site based solely on whether we share opinions of things? Call me old-fashioned, but I have been perfectly capable of meeting people my entire life – yes, even on social networks – without agreeing with them on what I think of Shakira. The whole site is based on the idea of what opinions people have in common. This information is evidently more useful to an advertiser scanning groups and demographics, than it is to the individuals involved. Even the suggestion mechanism is flawed. For example, the "smart connect" portion of the site discovers people I may be interested in following, because I have a 100% rating match with them. After close inspection, it turns out the two of us have, in fact, only rated one object in common – a low-hanging fruit such as Google, or Twitter. That doesn't seem like a very good algorithm. If a little more evidence as to where this data is going were needed, a closer look at a more detailed ratings page might give a clue. The page gives average ratings throughout the Bubbalon world, but also categorized by user groups and, yes, by the most polarizing of all demographics, gender. I am quite suspicious about a site that is using gender as a statistic-collating process. Expect to see dating ads very shortly. And, just in case anyone was wondering, liking the same things isn't necessarily a successful basis of a relationship, either…

If I already wasn't impressed by Bubbalon, what it had craftily done during my initial signup was the final straw. It's all too common for these sorts of sites to connect with, for example, Facebook or Twitter, retrieve your friends list, and look for them on the site. That's something I have more or less gotten used to, and am quite happy to accept the OAuth disclaimer that the site is going to access my Twitter feeds, followers, and following lists. What is inexcusable, however, is the default behavior of Bubbalon after connecting is to tweet every rating as and when you declare it. It did not offer that configuration option before dropping me into the site, and it took some finding once I realized that it had already sent thirty or forty tweets on my behalf. I took a look at my Twitter timeline and I did indeed look like Cheese from the Foster's show, particularly as the site will send multiple tweets if you have a bit of a shaky mouse hand and jiggle the sliders. After a couple of concerned followers drew my attention to this apparent lapse, I was livid, and spent quite a while cleaning up the mess. Not only had, in my opinion, the site little to offer me, but it had committed what I consider a grave sin. If you do go to Bubbalon, make sure you find these options and disable them. Otherwise, you too might end up sounding just like Cheese, whose immortal words might just sum up what i thought of Bubbalon:

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About darlingman1970

Born in the UK and a graduate in mathematics from Cambridge University, Chris Nash has followed a career in software engineering which he continued after moving the United States in 1996 and now brings him to California in 2010. However, Chris does not want to be considered as merely a code monkey, and has always been interested in writing; in areas as diverse as factual technical manuals all the way through to fiction. An avid reader, Chris is a fan particularly of mystery novels and enjoys above all the works of Agatha Christie and David Hewson. Chris has recently gone through some significant life changes which, at the moment, he is considering as the basis for a forthcoming novel and as food for thought on his blog. He manages to couple his loves of writing and technology and is particularly interested in how internet innovations have an impact on the writing and promotional process. Chris is a firm supporter of Creative Commons and other 'open' initiatives and believes strongly that such distribution mechanisms are the "right" way to handle intellectual property in an evolving digital world. Chris is a keen Nintendo DS and Wii player in his spare time, and is currently happily attached, living in the Central Coast area of California. Find him on Twitter as @darlingman1970. Don't ask him how old he is.
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