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Reimagining the Open Web Sandbox 

 June 12, 2021

By  Aaron Luhning

The Open Web Sandbox is a cool idea.  In the words of 4NTS Guild...

"it's a place for contributors, prospective Guild leaders, and veteran members of the NEAR community to collaborate with one another in helping develop and promote the NEAR Ecosystem."

It's a place where people can even earn NEAR while getting involved in various activities and projects going on in the ecosystem.

Sounds awesome right?  

Well it certainly could be, but I'd suggest there are some improvements to be made before it's really going to take off.

Recently as part of the Metagov challenge of the Open Web Hackathon we reimagined and customized the Catalyst platform to help decentralize the NEAR Community Fund.

We suggested an alternative/ complement to how the fund is currently managed using Discourse.  Using a Catalyst DAO makes it more efficient and promotes accountability and transparency.  We've cued up the video above to start at 22:46 to see our presentation/demo.

Inspired by what we enabled Catalyst to do there, we now decided to turn our attention to the Open Web Sandbox (OWS).

So What's Wrong With OWS Right Now?

If I had to sum up the issue in one word - that word is undoubtedly:

complicated

Wait a minute... let me be clear...

This article might come across as some kind of attack on the current version of the OWS.  Believe me, I have nothing but respect for everyone involved at NEAR - the core team, the guilds, and all the individual contributors.  This is not an attack - it's a genuine attempt to provide some honest feedback and potential improvements so usage and involvement of the OWS accelerates to propel NEAR and the community forward.  If the OWS is effective, Vital Point AI projects will benefit.  That is my goal here - to help make OWS more effective, and sometimes that means direct and honest (but respectful/professional) criticism.

I've been around NEAR and a guild leader since June 2020.  In that time, I've given as much time as I could providing feedback, participating in hackathons, answering questions, and having various discussions on community initiatives - all with the intention of learning NEAR, how to write contracts, and program so I could build the things in my head.

When I saw OWS launch - I was optimistic.  Finally, I thought I would have access to seed funding, developers and people far more talented than I, that could help accelerate our projects.  Unfortunately, it's been about four months since it's official launch and I have had exactly ZERO people contact me to take me up on the initial bounties posted (which have since disappeared - more on that below...). 

While that could be because nobody is interested in working on Vital Point AI projects, I have a strong feeling after having talked to a few people that it's more likely because it's nearly impossible to figure out how the OWS works and overly burdensome to operate within it once you do.

I have some suggestions on how to fix that in the latter part of this article, but first, let me convince you it really is nearly impossible and overly complicated for the average person to want to spend any time trying to figure out.

If you'd like to try - here are the instructions as best as I can tell (would be nice if these were all linked together somehow or even mentioned in the Discord onboarding channel.  As is, I only know they exist because I follow what's getting posted on the NEAR governance forum - what about someone who doesn't?):

How Does Someone Use OWS Right Now?

There are essentially two perspectives to consider when approaching the OWS:

  1. Individual contributors looking for tasks to do or ways of contributing - think developer, writer, designer, planner, coordinator, and so on; and
  2. Project/community owners looking for people to complete tasks and contribute to the growth of their project or community - think startups, visionaries, project/product managers, and so on.

Perspective One:  The Individual Contributor

Ok, so one day I'm chatting with some friends and one of them mentions this OWS thing they heard about.  Intrigued, I decide to check it out. I start out with a quick Google search for "open web sandbox near" and I find the launch announcement.

So far, so good.  The post gives me some background and will eventually send me to their Discord channel. (534 members as of this writing, not bad)

Before we head over there to create a contributor profile and become inundated with NEAR earning opportunities, reading the page starts to raise some expectations and also a few questions:

I Read

I Think

I fill out a profile to make myself known for future engagements

Excellent, cool projects are going to start reaching out to me.

I'm supposed to look around at the different opportunities.

Right on, there must be a list of opportunities so not only will teams contact me, but I can see what help people need and contact them to accept work they have posted.

Rewards are divided between acts and series.  An act is something I can do on my own.  A series is something I probably need a team to do.

Ok, not very clear on what the difference is, but I'm sure it's going to be explained.  As an individual, I don't have a team, but that should be ok as I can complete the acts at least.

At the end of the month, I will fill out a form claiming the reward for each of the activities I work on.  It's evaluated by the Sandbox council and I get paid at the NEAR address I provide within the first week of the month.

Alright, so I need to find this form so I can track what I'm doing.  Who is on the Sandbox council (centralized control?).  How will they decide whether I get paid or not - am I going to spend a month working on something only to have it potentially rejected?  Something I'm going to need to investigate a bit further.... (hmm wasn't the idea of blockchains supposed to eliminate trust issues/decentralize things?)

There's a spotlight thing - way for them to add a bonus to the rewards to focus on specific things/events.  Anyone can request the spotlight (there's another form somewhere)

Interesting idea - ok - not thinking much else at the moment.

A long-term vision that includes cool things like DAOs, gamification, VR and more.

Excellent, it might be rough now, so I can live with that for a bit knowing it's going to get a lot better.

Having read through the launch, the obvious next step is to get into the Discord server.

Which directs me to create a contributor profile in the #contributor-profile channel using a templated format.  No problem - so far so good.

Keep in mind...

if you have a project and want to use the Sandbox to find contributors, but also be a contributor yourself on other projects, you're not going to be able to post a contributor-profile with the same account.  I tried - and was told I couldn't get access to both.  Seeing as I'm not creating another Discord account - logging out/logging in when I want to be a contributor vs project owner - guess I'm not offering up my services as a contributor.

Example of what one posts in the contributor-profile channel

Alright, with my profile up, the opportunities are going to start rolling in.  In the meantime, let's go find something to work on.  Heading back to the onboarding post, I see all the opportunities are listed in the #rolling-opportunities channel.  Let's go there.

Alright - the opportunities aren't actually here - they are listed at that link on a Discourse forum.  Guess we'll head over there.

Now I know what you're thinking - not super complicated yet - although I did have to go from a website, to join a Discord server, to now a Discourse forum - looks like at least two of these tools (Discord/Discourse) are going to be required to use the Sandbox.

Here's where life starts to get difficult.  If one takes a look at the Open Web Sandbox Rewards and Opportunities for June - there is a list of possible contributions.  I also learn I'm going to have to figure out what a Sputnik DAO is/how to use it (so now a third tool).  I will have to evaluate my own contributions (seems open to abuse?) and create a report (more work) that gets posted to Discourse (governance forum).  Once a Sandbox moderator sees it and gives me the green light (centralized control) I then submit a reward proposal in the Sputnik DAO and perhaps 6 weeks later I will get paid (even at a job I get paid every two weeks).

So, issues with the way things are currently setup summarized:

  • have to use three tools which requires creating accounts/sharing data with two web 2 era apps (Discord, Discourse) and figuring out Sputnik DAO, moving back and forth between them all
  • will be working in a system that relies on contributors to verify their own work.  How long does this go on before NEAR realizes NEAR is distributing funds with no way to measure and hold accountable the value received in return and shuts it down.  Am I about to start learning/working in a unsustainable system?
  • I'm working in a web 3 world, but I'm going to be relying on web 2 tools, forms, and spreadsheets to eventually get paid?
  • Once I complete work, it's submitted to a centralized council to decide on whether I can proceed to ask for a payout.  What happens if it's not approved?  Did I just spend a month doing things I'm not going to get compensated for?  Putting a lot of trust in a centralized entity for my livelihood - thought blockchains were supposed to help eliminate trust issues?
  • It's going to take likely on average about 4-6 weeks to get a payout for work completed.  Sorry, that's insane.  Even in the normal world, an invoice typically has a 30 day payment policy.

So if I've got this right - think the flow looks something like this:

Honestly, I think we can make some optimizations here.

The Rewards:  Acts and Series

The current reward structure is based on the idea that OWS wants to promote getting things done, but also reward ongoing commitment and contribution.  Taking a single act and turning it into a series that multiplies the efforts of that act.  At least that's how I understand it.

However if one peruses the current list of rewards, the distinction between an act and a series isn't immediately obvious.

My advice - drop the whole act/series thing and hand out rewards and bonuses. Words have meaning and a reward/bonus structure is immediately obvious vice acts/series that needs to be explained.  I'd also argue that many of the acts in the current list don't have an associated series - they are all acts in and of themselves.

For example - ignoring the accountability/quality control issues for a minute -grabbing one of the current rewards - I ask you - what is easier to understand (and therefore self-calculate on completion)?:

Acts and Series

Rewards and Bonuses

Write a NEAR dApp Guide and post to social media.

Write a NEAR dApp Guide and post to social media.

Act:  Near dApp Guides


Reward:  8 NEAR per 500 words


Series:

-Edit, add related self-made visuals to the write-up (graphics and videos)

-Edit, add related visuals of other people/from other sources to the write-up


Final Reward:

20 NEAR (own graphics + videos added)

16 NEAR (+ own video is added)

12 NEAR (+ own graphic is added)

12 NEAR (+NOT self produced graphics + videos are added)

8 NEAR (30+ likes on Twitter for the twitted writeup, one time bonus)

Base Reward: 8 NEAR per 500 words


Bonuses (one of):

+12 NEAR - including your own graphics and video

+8 NEAR - including your own related video

+4 NEAR - including your own related graphics

+4 NEAR - including related graphics/video from other sources


Social Media Bonus (one time): +8 NEAR for 30+ likes on Twitter

When I look at the series - they are all acts to me.  They are not ongoing, long-term things.  They are one-off "products" being produced.  We're simply being rewarded for the length and diversity of content (text, graphics, video).

Isn't there a Quality Control/Abuse Issue Here?

If I was in charge of compensation, using the above reward opportunity, I'd be a bit worried about abuse right now:

  • If I'm paying 8 NEAR per 500 words - is there a limit to the number of words or can someone create NEAR's version of War and Peace (587, 287 words) and demand a payout of 9397 NEAR (plus a bit for including graphics/video)?  Maybe that article would be worth the equivalent of almost $30K USD  (at today's price of $3.06) - I don't know, but I doubt it.
  • What about quality of writing, graphics, and video?  I will undoubtedly determine that whatever I produce is awesome, but is it really?  Maybe I'm a semi-professional writer with many year's experience and put hours/days into a 500 word article.  I'm getting paid the same as someone who copy/pastes someone else's work into a 500 word submission?  Fair?
  • What about accuracy?  I'm compensating people for their work, so I'm inherently endorsing what they write.  What if that article is fraught with errors, inaccuracies, or even blatant outright lies attacking other projects/people.  Seems like I'm opening myself up to some major legal issues or at least bad publicity.
  • What about fraudulent likes?  And more importantly, what about the perception that a project with or without merit is being pumped by compensating people for the number of likes they get (are they genuine likes or did we buy them?).

Any system will have bad actors attempting to exploit it.  Probably need some safeguards in place to prevent and address attempts to abuse it to make it as fair as possible. 

Perspective Two:  The Project Owner/Community Builder

Sifting through the various posts/docs and Discord, believe this is the path for a project wanting to use the Sandbox to find contributors.

If you decide to work with us to build Catalyst and impact the world, you'll be doing so as an Independent Contractor.  

The general idea of what that means is that you are running your own business and Vital Point AI will enter into an agreement (contract) for services you provide.

The image on the right provides a summary of what's involved.  Catalyst will take some of the admin off your hands at some point (i.e., resource allocation will be automatic once a proposal is approved) - but it's up to you to consider whatever laws/regulations are in effect in your region and plan accordingly (income tax and things like that).

In Summary

Catalyst is swinging into high gear.  With target of May 2021 for a MVP and likely sooner for some user testing, we're looking forward to seeing how Catalyst is going to be used by communities, artists, freelancers, and everyone else looking for a self-organization solution.

You have an opportunity to earn some NEAR, learn blockchain/open web development and help us build the platform.  Reach out and get involved (only those with ambition/initiative/persistence and self-discipline please and thanks).

Until next time.  SITREP ends.

Aaron Luhning


I'm the husband of an amazing wife and father to two fantastic kids. I spend my time immersed in blockchain, data science, and mixed reality to automate processes, eliminate bureaucracy and create mind-blowing decision support solutions. When I'm not doing that, I'm running ultra-marathons, skydiving or boxing. Oh, and I don't do this stuff professionally. About sums me up.

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