Reputation: where the personal and the participatory meet up (installment 1 of 4)

A common lament is that the early Internet was invented without a view
toward security, much less reputation. Considering that the first
intended use of the Internet was a kind of 1970’s-style grid computing
(time-sharing on supercomputers), the inventors should have had both
security and reputation in mind. Nowadays we need reputation even

It may be possible to write an article for Radar without mentioning Web 2.0, but I just blew my chance.
I can’t avoid it; the tidal wave of grass-roots contributions to the
Internet over the past decade is what drives web administrators and
users to ask the fundamental questions in reputation:

  • How can I trust someone to tell the truth in a blog?

  • Does someone else’s rating reflect my own taste?

  • Do I want this person as part of my discussion group?

  • Will this computer help upload files over a peer-to-peer network if I
    let it use my computer to download files?

And on the other hand, we worry about our own reputations:

  • What comes up when someone enters my name in a search engine?

  • Can I take down that article I posted two years ago, now that I’ve
    changed my opinion?

  • How can I tell my new SecondLife customers that I have a good
    reputation on eBay?

The last question points to the ideal hovering over all these
questions: that of a universal reputation we can accrue over the years
and use in every community we join. As several speakers pointed out,
online and offline reputations are merging, causing our academic
careers, jobs, and personal associations increasingly to rest on what
we do online.

These sorts of issues drew some 90 to 100 lawyers, technologists,
librarians, and others to a

Symposium on Reputation Economies in Cyberspace

at Yale University’s

Information Society Project
The fog surrounding reputation is clearing, but the emerging landscape
is different from what many of us expected. The goal of a universal
reputation may be unachievable in both theory and practice. More to
the point, it may be undesirable.

As the presence of the word economies in the title of the
conference indicates, reputation can be seen as a market in which
people invest in reputation, store it, exchange it, and expend it as
necessary for other goods.

Reputation also has a crucial impact on real economies. Recently, opened a
where free software experts can offer services and support. This
happens to be the same business that
tried and failed at many years ago (CollabNet was partly funded by
O’Reilly), but one key difference is that offers a
reputation system where buyers and sellers can rate each other’s
performance. We shall see whether reputation reveals the truth.
(Update: Brian Behlendorf, a founder of CollabNet, says that the site
did have a reputation system and was fairly successful, but the
company decided to focus on another core business.)

Reputation can potentially alter our politics as much as our buying
habits. Flexible rating and ranking systems aimed at communities that
form online can help them determine who is trusted in the community,
where members disagree, and how much support each position has. People
may therefore be able to organize over the Internet more quickly and
with greater transparency and clarity.

Three goals for reputation

Several presenters at the conference, including Hassan Masum (a
researcher at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health) and
Harvard Law School’s Urs Gasser, pointed out the complexity of
reputation and asked us to consider such issues as what effect we want
reputation to have, how long a rating holds its meaning, whether
reputation should be meaningful among a small group of peers or on a
more global scale, and how to encourage honest ratings. They listed
concerns such as preserving dissenting points of view (avoiding
“mobocracy”), giving the subjects of reputation the right to air their
views, and putting in place frameworks that allow different
communities to talk to each other.

Auren Hoffman of
listed three criteria we should ask of reputation systems:


You should know what your reputation is and what information it’s
based on. This calls for transparency on the part of the site
maintaining the information. “Nobody should know more about you than
you know about yourself.”


You should be able to correct wrong information and remove personal
information you don’t want others to see.


You should be able to reuse the reputation stored by one service or
social network on another.

All three of these, however, are subject to debate and