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Improving the Devtome

There has been some recent discussion on the Devcoin forum about ways in which either the Devtome or the Devcoin project itself could be improved. The current price of Devcoin is very low, which tends to exacerbate the sense of urgency each suggester of change has about the project implementing his or her particular solution.

These discussions tend to be cyclical, coming up every couple rounds or so, and as mentioned before, being inversely related to the price of Devcoin. When I first got involved as a Devtome writer I tended to weigh in more on these discussions. Now I largely stay out of them as I've come to realize there is a certain “same old, same old” component to them. I've also realized that Unthinkingbit, the founder of Devcoin, while he considers suggestions, does not make hasty changes in the direction of the project or the way Devtome earnings are allocated.

But in the midst of the repeated (and rejected) proposals, there are often gems of great ideas, and the current discussions were no exception. Below are my thoughts on how I see the Devtome moving forward. For the most part I recommend the project overall maintain course, and certainly make no sudden changes. However, I do see some positive ways in which the project could improve.

I wouldn't change a thing

This is largely how I feel about the project in the broadest sense. Devcoin and Devtome are brilliaint, actually. We live in a world dominated by fiat currency and scarcity. When it comes to creativity and the arts, the general assumption is that if it doesn't make money, then it's too expensive. The reality is that the arts do not get adequately funded. During the Renaissance great artists such as Michelangelo were sponsored by art patrons, wealthy people in society who saw value in painting and sculpting and wanted to support the ones who did those things. Although today there are wealthy people who support the arts, art largely gets supported through various organizations. Most organizations engaged in some form of art, such as my daughters' annual Nutcracker production, rely on fundraising and selling ad space in the programs because the ticket price barely makes a dent in the cost of the production. The government to some extent supports art, but people raise legitimate issues about how such government subsidies interfere with free market enterprise. The bottom line is that our current economic system makes it difficult to adequately support the arts.

Enter Unthinkingbit and Devcoin. He wanted to support open source developers and writers, partially take a dent out of the “starving artist” reality so many live under. Realistically he wasn't going to come up with enough fiat money to support more than a small handful of artists (if even that). So he invented and created his own currency, and set it up to generate using similar parameters of Bitcoin but different values. The result was Devcoin. Devcoins are created at a rate of 180 million a month, and they are allocated to the various writers, developers and administrators who earned shares that month.

Basically, he invented a type of money and offered to pay people with it, and people agreed to get paid in that money. Initially the money had little to no intrinsic value. It's not like it was backed up by some precious metal or other resource. It was just numbers generated by some computer code. But the writers and developers came and they got paid.

Today Devcoins can be traded for Bitcoins and Bitcoins trade at around $500 each. A writer publishing 20,000 words in a month can earn close to five million Devcoins, which currently adds up to a little less than two Bitcoins and a total of close to $700. Of course this amount can change on a dime (and it often does), but $700 is not bad for someone who enjoys writing and probably does it without monetary reward. A writer cannot live on only $700 a month, but an extra $700 a month sure can help pay a lot of bills. I personally went from juggling utility shutoff notices to paying my bills a month ahead of time in the space of several months, and the Devtome earnings are what made the difference for me.

Basically, Unthinkingbit's plan to support writers and developers by inventing his own money worked, and it appears will work for the foreseeable future. The specific details of how earnings are calculated and writers are paid are not perfect and have evolved in the time I've been a Devtome writer. But the overarching principle, the overall Devcoin currency, and the Devtome, are both brilliant and effective. Whenever people start complaining about the details I always want to encourage them to take a step back and contemplate the genius of the entire concept.

Devtome user friendliness issues

In his article Devtome ease of use improvements fellow writer Papacrusher talks about the challenges new writers face in learning the wiki syntax and suggests that it would be less intimidating if the Devtome had more of a wysiwig editor format similar to WordPress blogs. He also mentions that the layout and aesthetics of the Devtome could use some improvement. Melodiemuse and cdelatorref proposed ways to improve the navigation and overall readability and organization of the Devtome in their respective articles Devtome navigation and cdelatorref s thoughts to improve Devtome. These articles also included suggestions for ways to improve communication among writers and further automate various aspects of evaluating writers in order to lighten the burden of the article and earnings admins.

I personally am all for those kind of suggestions in general. I consider them to be constructive criticism. Anything that makes reading the Devtome more appealing and improves the experience for writers is a plus. I and others might disagree with specific suggestions, or feel we have better ideas, but it's great that those ideas are proposed and discussed. I hope to see the better ones implemented. I suspect some of them will. I encourage everyone to come up with those kind of improvement ideas.

Earnings equity issues

I consider discussions around the notion of fair or equitable earnings for either writers or developers to be a waste of time. A common theme in the cyclical discussions is the sense that developers' earnings are diluted by prolific writers. The developers claim that it's easier for writers to write than it is for them to code. This may very well be true but it's beside the point. If you are a developer, you agree to complete a certain open source project in return for a bounty consisting of an agreed number of writing shares. If it seems fair to you, then take it; if not leave it. But it's disingenuous to agree to the bounty and then complain that you're not getting as much for your efforts as you thought you were because there were more shares allocated to writers than you thought there would be. In the early days there was probably more basis for the complaints, especially during rounds which saw heavy increases in new writers and before admin diligence caught up with writer scamming practices. However now the Devtome has a history of thirty-four rounds, and statistics on how many shares were allocated for each round and exactly how they were allocated are readily available.

A developer considering a bounty can look at how much shares were worth in previous rounds and come to a reasonable expectation as to how much he is likely to earn in an upcoming round. If the result doesn't seem to him to be enough, he can make a counteroffer to the admin in charge of the bounty. Unthinkingbit has in the past adapted the number of shares in developer bounties to keep pace with increases in the number of shares allocated to writers. Once the developer has negotiated what he considers to be good compensation for his efforts he has no further reason to resent or otherwise concern himself with what the writers are earning.

I have little patience for the us vs. them mentality that comes up quite often in these discussions. I see no good reason for it, and yet it does come up a lot. Although the strategies may vary, both writers and developers have ways to make sure they are meeting their earnings goals.

Weeding out the scammers

In my opinion the work that has been done in this one area has been very effective at eliminating scam writers or even people who despite their hopes have no true ability to write well. New writers are more thoroughly vetted, and current writers continue to be evaluated through random checks on the part of article admins and writer ratings. There was a time when a scam writer actually got away with significant earnings and yes, those earnings took away from what the legitimate writers earned. Round 24, anyone? But this problem was quickly addressed and over the next few rounds article and earnings admins whose mission is to find and eliminate writers of spam, plagiarized content, or drivel joined the Devtome team. Although I'm sure the methods these admins use will continue to evolve I am reasonably confident that my earnings are no longer being diluted by undeserving writers.

Plagiarism remains one of the biggest pains in the butt for everyone as apparently people still believe they can get away with simply copying others' work. The one point in Papacrusher's article that I disagree with is that I do not believe plagiarism checking should ever be automated in a way that alerts the writer. My opinion on plagiarism is that if you have to ask, then you probably shouldn't publish. The last thing I want to see is writers attempt to publish their worthless content, get a warning that it fails a plagiarism check leading to them rewording it just enough to pass. No, I prefer they publish their content as is and then wake up one day to find their articles and account deleted after the earnings admin discovered their work was plagiarized. However, I can see huge potential in a setup where the Devtome carried some sort of automatic plagiarism checker which did not warn the writer but instead alerted an admin. Basically, I'm an advocate of a continued zero tolerance policy for plagiarism, and generally will be in favor of anything that would make it easier to enforce this policy.

In general, with strong procedures in place for vetting writers and their content, the good writers can have confidence that they will earn a decent return for their work which will not be diluted unfairly by scam writers. With that said I believe Devtome admins should be open to suggestions for further improving these strong procedures.

Good writers should not be penalized

Those writers whose work meets Devtome standards should be unhindered in their ability to earn Devcoins for their work. They should not be penalized for reasons which have little to do with their work. Every few rounds or so, someone proposes that writers should earn based on what they do with their earnings after they receive them. Seriously. People have proposed on more than one occasion that writers be paid based on how fat their Devcoin wallet is–the writers hoarding Devcoins would be paid more than those writers who immediately spend theirs. The assumption there is that writers who quickly empty their wallets are just dumping their Devcoins on the market depressing the price for everyone else.

First of all, there is nothing wrong with trading one's Devcoins for Bitcoins, or Litecoins or any other cryptocurrency. While dumping earnings will have a negative impact on the price, that doesn't make it a crime. People need to be free to do whatever they wish with what they earned fair and square, and not have their wallet addresses monitored. Second of all, just because someone empties their PC wallet does not mean they dumped the Devcoins. I personally trade Devcoins for Bitcoins, but I also use them to invest in projects which have issued Devcoin-denominated securities as well as send them to other DVC addresses I have where I actually do hoard them. In attempting to discourage me from dumping my Devcoins, such an invasive and draconian policy would also discourage me from investing, hoarding or spending my Devcoins–all of which actually contribute to the viability of Devcoins.

It's one thing to weed out scam writers. It is not acceptable to penalize good writers. Earnings allocation can be changed through such things as earnings multipliers which reward writers for page views, good ratings, and categorization; earnings can be increased for developers by increasing number of shares in bounties. The number of writing shares a writer can earn per round can be decreased. There are likely other ways in which the values making up the earnings allocation system can be tweaked. As long as the parameters are clearly stated I have no problem with them. I have always said that if the parameters governing my earnings ever got to the point where I felt it wasn't worth it I would then have a decision to make about whether or not I would continue writing for the Devtome. One thing I don't ever want to experience is having my earnings penalized based on things I do with my earnings that have nothing to do with my writing. I suspect I'm not the only writer who feels that way. I also suspect that any suggestions to this effect, no matter how passionately proposed and defended, will continue to be ignored by the decision makers.

Agitation from low prices

I remember well waiting to receive my first Devtome earnings while watching the Devcoin price decrease from over 100 sat to 85 sat. It didn't get any better when the price fell all the way to a low of 22 sat over the next few rounds. Since it was my first time paying attention to the Devcoin price I seriously worried that the price would simply continue to drop into oblivion, as I'm sure many new writers are worried about it now. But I have seen the price recover and jump all the way back up to over 150 sat and hover around 100 sat for a long time (and while the price of Bitcoin was at $800, making for some great returns on writing). I have also learned a little bit about how sensitive cryptocoins in general are to a small group of people deliberately manipulating their markets.

My opinion is that exchange rates aren't something to get too worried about provided the fundamentals of the project are sound. Devcoin has been around for over two years–an eternity for a cryptocoin–and its fundamentals are not only sound to begin with, but continue to improve over time. Its prices will fluctuate wildly because that's what cryptocoin prices do. Other than trying to hold on through the lows and sell at the highs, there really isn't a whole lot one can do, and worrying certainly isn't effective.

One thing that can be predicted is that when the price is low there will be lots of proposals for overhauling the Devcoin project thrown around in the forums, and draconian measures intended to stabilize the price but whose actual effects would be detrimental to the overall project will be proposed and vehemently defended. Some of this comes from where new people are at on the Devcoin learning curve, while a lot of it comes out of panic that maybe the whole thing is about to implode and they just missed the boat.

There are actually some advantages to low Devcoin prices which aspiring Devtome writers should not ignore. One notable advantage is that low prices translate into much less interest in writing. Fewer people sign up as new writers and existing writers tend to publish less content. This means that a writer who maintains a steady output through a long spell of low prices can really rake it in when the round pays out. It can also be viewed as a good time for a writer to take a bit of a break, knowing that each share is likely to yield more Devcoins. I took the latter strategy for round 34, only writing half of what I wrote in round 33. However, my round 34 earnings only decreased by 15 percent or so; they were definitely not cut in half. My favorite instance of this phenomenon working for me was when round 29 paid out. It was a round of low word count for nearly everyone, including me. But when the round paid out I cleaned up, and the round payout corresponded to a huge rally of both Devcoin and Bitcoin. It was an awesome Christmas.

On the other hand when the price of Devcoin is high, the competition for the next round's Devcoins is much fiercer as writers publish more and the amount of Devcoins per share goes down.

Low Devcoin prices tend to correspond with low prices on the Devcoin-denominated projects and so provide good buying opportunities. You can also take advantage of the low prices to actually buy Devcoins and then hold onto them until you can sell them at a higher price further down the road.

I encourage Devtome writers and developers, especially new ones, to focus on the positive and don't panic when the price drops. It will eventually recover, and probably sooner than we all think.

And now for my own improvement ideas...

A mentoring program for new Devtome writers

While initially skeptical, I took to the Devtome project and concept very well, and am arguably one of the more successful writers here. This fact has actually been (though in the nicest way) used to counteract my own arguments in favor of keeping the Devtome earnings system on a steady course and not making any radical changes. You like it the way it is because it's working for you, I'm told, implying that this presents a conflict of interest.

I've been quite surprised by my own success here because it didn't seem to take much effort on my part to write and publish my content here. As such I assumed that anyone could be successful as a Devtome writer and do it well. But I have figured out that it's not a given that every new writer will do well with this opportunity.

My proposal here is for an informal (and maybe more formalized down the road) system where proven Devtome writers can mentor new writers who are serious about making the most of the Devtome opportunity. I know I would greatly enjoy taking one or two promising writers under my wing and showing them the ropes. I'm not referring to Devtome technical support or providing editing or proofreading services. I'm talking about taking a more personal interest in one or two new writers and sharing with them what has worked for me, and figuring out with them how to best make it work for them.

I have written an article or two explaining how to be successful as a Devtome writer. For the most part it's all about maintaining a steady pace and discipline of writing–getting to the point where you write when it's time to write no matter what else may be going on in your life and no matter how much you don't feel like it. Along with that is keeping an eye out for anything going on in your life, including the things you are reading or doing online, which could form the basis for a story or essay. I have been told by several people that they have found my various tutorial articles helpful. But I could take this one step further by personalizing my recommendations to a specific writer's interests, talents, and life circumstances.

I'd like to see the development of a mentoring process for new writers. I'd like to see some ground rules and expectations set up, and maybe some more specific guidelines for getting such a program off the ground. At this point I do not have specifics but I'm sure that will come, and other proven writers will also have their own ideas. Basically, since the Devtome earnings system is working so well for me, and I'm neither deliberately gaming it nor particularly attached to it, this tells me that it's a good system, and that the things I am doing which make it work for me can be done by other writers for their own benefit. I also want to make it clear that I have no particular secret to my success that I would willfully withhold from anyone. I would really enjoy helping other writers to be successful.

A writing university

This idea is actually not my own idea. Raptorak once mentioned it to me as something he hoped to work on once he got some time. Basically it would involve an organized collection of writing tutorials and exercises which new writers would be required to go through and demonstrate proficiency in before they got added to the earnings list. The topics would include basic good writing and grammar pointers as well as Devtome policies, syntax and tips. Essentially it would be a more comprehensive version of the current collection of writer guides. Already proficient writers could be given the opportunity to test out of the requirement from the beginning, but struggling writers could really benefit from some basic courses and practice in what constitutes good writing. Part of the responsibilities of mentors (see above) would be to help their new writers work through the writing university.

Someone would have to put together an overall plan for such a university which would include all the topics to be covered. Once the plan was put in place, then a call for articles for each topic could be put forward and Devtome writers could then submit their articles. People could also contribute educational videos. Bounties could be awarded for each component of this project, including the overall plan, specific articles, and the editing and organizing of the articles once they are turned in, and finally a way to track and grade students' progress with it. People running the university could be paid some admin shares.

Pairing developers with writers

Those who earn Devcoins by writing and developing open source code have at times complained that Devtome writers have a much easier job and are able to earn better compensation for their work. However it is often the case that the overall ability of computer programmers to profit from their work is hampered by their lack of writing skills or interest. I have tried to plow through explanations of the various open source development projects going on, but have found them to be poorly presented and therefore incomprehensible. I'm an intelligent person but I don't have much of a technical background. I need intricate and highly technical projects explained in plain English. This is where good writers come in. Give me access to the members of any project team and I will ask them enough questions and listen long enough until I understand what they are working on enough to write an intelligent and informative article about it. My article could then become content for a project website or its prospectus should it be issuing shares to raise capital. The article could also be published on the Devtome. If we want to really get out the word about a particular project, then add a good marketer to the mix. When writers and programmers are working together in this way, it could become possible for writing earnings and programming bounties to be divided up among them in a way that is fair to everyone, allowing programmers to benefit from writing earnings and vice versa.

In conclusion

The Devcoin project is a work in progress, and that means it has lots of opportunity to improve. When proposing improvements people need to keep in mind the big picture, especially recognizing the genius of the concept. They also need to be mindful of the goals of the project and propose changes which will help the project meet its goals. At the same time, people should understand that the Devcoin project is not run by various externals such as the price of Devcoin or how writers choose to spend their earnings. Rather, the Devcoin project is guided by internal principles and goals. Once those internal principles and goals are properly understood, they can guide improvements as well as the project as a whole.

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