Reputation: where the personal and the participatory meet up (installment 4 of 4)

(Installment 1,
installment 2,
installment 3
were published previously on Radar, and are still there with numerous
comments. The entire article can be viewed on
my web site.)

Economic motivations and economic effects

Bauwens pointed out that most online work, like other
peer-generated information, is done by volunteers without financial
remuneration. This is clearest in expressive communities such as
YouTube. In commons-oriented production, such as Linux and Wikipedia,
everyone derives a shared benefit without money exchanging hands.
(Most Linux kernel hackers are now paid to do their work, but most
companies who pay them don’t get their investment back directly by
selling Linux.)

Money becomes a factor in peer production when it gets integrated into
a company’s value chain, as with rankings or the kinds of
user innovation networks researched by
Eric von Hippel.
Bauwens recognized that people will “cash in” their reputations at
some point, but urged sites to try somehow to maintain some distance
between the systems that solicit ratings and the material rewards for
such ratings.

Kuraishi categorized rating relationships three ways, following
psychologist Steven Pinker: authority ranking, rating to support
exchange (as on eBay), and communal sharing (as on book or restaurant

William McGeveran of the University of Minnesota’s Law School
said that reputation and privacy used to be a top-down affair between
the collector of information and the person being tracked. Rules get
more complicated in an age of ratings and Facebook Beacon,
where the collector uses the reputation of the individual to affect
the decisions of third parties. Even people on social networks take
advantage of others’ reputation as they ask their friends for
recommendations. The attempt to stretch reputation to support the
reputation of other people or companies could lead to spam-like
annoyances as well as privacy concerns.

Bob Sutor, VP of Open Source and Standards at IBM, pointed out that
people’s bad reputations can drag down the reputations of the things
they rate. I’m not sure that’s quite true, but would restate it to say
that you don’t benefit from being rated highly by people who lack high
reputations themselves.

Rishab A. Ghosh of United Nations University’s UNU-MERIT center picked
up on the theme of unremunerated contributions. Peer-to-peer networks
sharing free contributions lack the kinds of guidelines that pricing
offers. Whereas pricing helps me decide where to put my time and
energy in a market, I can’t use pricing as a decision about what
community to join or what open source project to work for. Reputation
is critical for such peer projects. And even in exchanges involving
money, reputation is important. In general, Ghosh said, “reputation
captures the value about people that is not caught by markets”

Ghosh does not expect reputation to be easy to measure and use online.
Formal systems are always subject to abuse. For instance, vegetarians
can downgrade the rating of a restaurant they’ve never stepped in
because they disapprove of its selling meat. Ghosh trusts the more
subjective reputation that we use in everyday life, both online and
offline. We listen to our friends, our professors, our more
experienced colleagues. If we like meat, we listen to other carnivores
and go to the restaurants they like, ignoring the opinions of

Intellectual property restraints

As Tushnet said, intellectual property restrictions can act like a
tourniquet to restrict the flow of information and innovative
information uses. She displayed a couple typical LiveJournal pages and
pointed that nearly everything people used to establish their identity
and attract friends–pictures of movie scenes and cartoon characters,
references to pop artists, etc.–represented someone else’s
intellectual property in some way. Our identities tend to be mash-ups,
and yet they’re what we used to seed our reputations.

Eric Goldman of Santa Clara University’s School of Law laid out
several ways companies try to keep other sites from discussing their
products, such as copyrighting their product description texts and
even their model numbers, and invoking trademark rights to take down
poor reviews. He called for a few modest changes to current law to
open up space for reputation sites:

  • A safe harbor against copyright and trademark suits for search engines
    that return results for exact matches on product information

  • A publisher exemption for people who provide information (this would
    prevent them from being penalized for the first infringing use, but
    allow them to be penalized for doing it again)

  • Another safe harbor for referential trademark uses on sites that are
    currently in danger of lawsuits because they accept ads or carry on
    other commercial activities

The vision of a Semantic Web tries to make everything searchable
through metadata, but this very metadata may be encumbered by
intellectual property. John Clippinger of the Berkman Center said,
“Metadata is a control point.”

A discussion of data sharing across social networks revealed that
participants think attitudes are moving toward being more open, but
that we haven’t seen any change yet.

Where we’re going

To appreciate how far society has come from earlier times (even before
the invention of telecommunications and the Internet), a delightful
exercise is to view the French film The Return of Martin
. This film is closely (though not exactly) based on true
events in the 16th century. It concerns a man named Martin Guerre who
left his wife and home, but returned three years later to take up with
his wife again and work for the family patriarch. When he started to
demand a share of the family homestead, complaints began to be aired
that he was an imposter. All sorts of odd facts and memories about
Guerre were dredged up by people on both sides. Two trials took place
to answer a question that nowadays could probably be solved by picking
up the phone and calling a few government offices.

Even for someone like me who’s been following the field of reputation
for a while, Yale’s Reputation Economies conference raised a lot of
good new ideas. At a lunch break, Information Society Project
organizers asked people with press passes a few reputation-related
questions, which are related to a new initiative at Yale to set up a
Law and Media program.

How do they decide whom to give a press pass to? Would it be useful to
develop a code of ethics? If citizen journalists signed on to such a
code, would it enhance their reputation?

Laura Denardis, incoming directory of the Information Society Project,
laid out three types ways citizen journalists could be rated:

  • Self-assessment: signing a code of ethics

  • Feedback from their subjects: a bit like,
    people could turn around and rate the journalists who write about

  • Peer-based review by other journalists

Some of us pointed out that reputation in journalism is built top-down
as well as bottom-up. If you’re banned from the White House, you can’t
build up a portfolio of articles about White House press conferences.
Conversely, being allowed into this symposium allows me to prove I can
write a compelling article about symposia and get myself invited to

O’Reilly Media is almost universally seen as the biggest reputation
builder in our area of technology. Having this article published on
the O’Reilly Network gives it much more credibility that circulating
it as an anonymous email.

For many years we had it good at O’Reilly. To put it bluntly, we
decided whose reputation to boost and who should have access to our
readers. Our readers in turn trusted us (and obviously still do, to a
large extent) to determine whom they should trust.

The burgeoning blogosphere, along with other forums for
self-publishing books and smaller media items, threatens the
gatekeeper role that O’Reilly built and that built us. As Bauwens said
at the beginning of the symposium, “Institutions are faced now not
only with individuals, but with self-organized peer groups.”

O’Reilly is trying to preserve some of its centrality in the
reputation economy of the tech world. We have long experience in doing
this, luckily–for instance, our relationships with user groups is
unparalleled. But the power relationships and channels for
communication are undergoing wild shifts. We’re learning to
disentangle the elements of added quality in publishing from the
elements of reputation gatekeeper, and over the next few years the
shifts in reputation economies is going to change us as much as