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

  • Thomas Lord

    You would probably also like Foucault’s writings about “actuarial practices” for their relevance, though others can more accurately point you towards them then I can off the top of my head.

    Roughly speaking, it was during the 17th and 18th centuries that we developed the bulk of what counts as modern finance, modern actuarial theory, accounting, contract theory, etc.

    These new techniques and their particular manner of displacement in commerce, law, the formation of the state etc. are some of the main organizing forces of how individual lives have come to be shaped. From the schoolroom and testing, to the adult’s relation to the health care system, to treatment by law enforcement and on forever, our built environment (both physical and social) and in so many important details the emergent effect of those basic advances in measuring, counting, and making statistical predictions, combined with a thought about how to fit that data into commerce.

    Considerable good comes of it. The trains run. There’s food on the grocery store shelves, around here, mostly.

    Some not so good things. The same “actuarial” world view, applied to humans, suggested a commodity. So, for example, the slave trade in its particular forms. I mean: who would have gone to such lengths were it not for economies of scale, ROI projections, available investment capital, and low overhead and transaction costs to be spent in measuring the product out in bulk?

    What I see in Web 2.0 is a few things.

    Technologically, it’s a nifty and thorough yet, nonetheless, simple exploration of a particular “easy” design space on top of the LAMP stack and its cousins. These are fairly simple database schema and simple business logic rules — just a particular focus on engaging users interactively, often in order to stalk them in one way or another, and/or in order to create a proprietary aggregate work from their efforts.

    But, businesswise, it’s a lot deeper: it’s a new advance in “actuarial” technology. It’s a new way to measure populations, in the interests of business processes that aim to manipulate populations.

    So, for the individual, I think Web 2.0′s contributions to identity, trust, reputation, presence, and privacy have been, well, not welcome at least. “Don’t go around calling people names,” my Mother once said to me.

    It seems so needless. That “easy” space of plays is over-mined anyway. One of the best things the investment / industry leadership folks can do is find some better vein to tap, preferably one that’s very supportive of individual liberty.


  • bex

    Interesting dilemma… in the past I’ve said that the louder you speak, the less control you should have over your own reputation:

    Similar to libel laws in the US: once you become a “public figure,” the rules about libel change drastically. Perhaps in the future, your Technorati rank will determine what legal recourses you have?

  • Michael H

    Something like for reputation is an interesting idea. Maybe LinkedIn or a similar site will come up with something.

    However, I think it would be too easy to game the system, either to trash someone’s reputation or make them look like an expert when they are not. I can certainly see spammers trying to “enhance” their reputations.

  • Thomas Lord

    And, Michael, those are just the “first order” effects. You’re talking about the games that arise directly among the users — but, it’s much, much deeper than that.

    For example, in the general Web 2.0 project to re-define identity, trust, reputation, etc. part of the ticket of admission for ideas that will spread are things that improve opportunities for the suveillance of users by large organizations. Often the debate is obscured by a focus of discussion on “privacy features” that, within the context of greater surveillance, give the user some asthetic choices but the general program of increasing surveillance and selling off the results to investors as a form of entrepreneurialism goes unchallenged.

    Aside from tuning the lottery game known as on-line advertising, what other uses do you think people are finding and will find for this population measurement data? We’re being “sold out,” by these businesses.


  • Brian Behlendorf

    “This happens to be the same business that CollabNet tried and failed at many years ago” is not an accurate statement. One of the three experiments in open source business models that CollabNet set up was a marketplace named SourceExchange, which unlike the SourceForge marketplace was not about selling support services but rather a system for open source developers to bid on RFPs for enhancements to open source projects, EBay-style. It had a reputation system built in, as well as certified Peer Reviewers who helped ensure quality. It was a success at one level – about $200K worth of projects were funded and completed through the system over the course of 3 years. However, another one of CollabNet’s experiments was proving to be more fruitful (the business CollabNet is in today), and given the state of the industry in 2001-2002, focusing on one great idea rather than three was the right thing to do.

    Back to the point of the article – I think it’s very important that any cross-site system for reputation recognize that reputation is not a scalar variable, but a multivariable vector; instead just a number, it’s a compilation of many different possible attributes. A given person may be rated highly by one person for their promptness in business while rated poorly by another for their writing skills. Frankly, I don’t find it a problem that assessing someone’s reputation involves something more sophisticated than a DNS query.

  • Michael H


    I guess that’s part of the problem. I can see individual sites coming up with reputation systems. Slashdot’s karma system is more-or-less like that, though it is a general idea where positive karma = a good reputation. When people with positive karma post, the posts are given bonus points. In a sense, they are “modded up” on the basis of the user’s karma/reputation. The practical aspect of this is people can set a filter so they won’t see posts below a certain level of points. This helps cuts down on the signal to noise ratio for the user.

    However, I’m not sure about the portability aspect. I visit a wide variety of sites; some for work, others for classes I’m taking, and still others because they’re relevant to interests of mine. Having Excellent karma on /. isn’t really relevant to a site on French culture.

    Some websites probably need a reputation system more than others. Auction sites like eBay use ranking system based on feedback from parties in transactions. While I don’t go to B2B sites, I think knowing the reputation of a supplier would be beneficial before entering into a contract with them. Wikipedia needs one badly. A blogger posting pics of their dogs, probably not so much…unless they are a dog breeder or professional dog handler.

    Maybe reputation is more about the context of how it is earned, as it is good/bad.

  • thacker

    Reputation is hardly linear and shouldn’t be confused, let alone attempts made to interpret it via the Internet, with things such as ‘authority’ or ‘expertise’.

  • Ramses

    I think it would be too easy to game the system, either to trash someone’s reputation or make them look like an expert when they are not. I can certainly see spammers trying to “enhance” their reputations.