Previous  |  Next


Dec 15

Andy Oram

Andy Oram

Reputation: where the personal and the participatory meet up (installment 3 of 4)

(Please read installment 1 and installment 2 before this installment.)

Portability: the problems

Although portable reputations, like single sign-on, appear to be Internet's golden future (both in terms of user participation and commerce), they're not likely to happen.

The first reason, of course, is that people have multiple reputations. Judging from the polls, Bill Clinton had a good reputation as a politician; he had a less enviable reputation as a sexual partner. Your own reputation on a technical site may be quite different from your reputation on a political discussion site, and your reputation on Republican's forums will be different from Democrat's forums.

Michel Bauwens of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives saw little value to generalized, global reputation systems. If we collect ratings indiscriminately from everybody about everything, we come out with a lowest common denominator, taking no account of interesting diversity and personal taste. (Interestingly, I remember George Gilder making a similar complaint about broadcast TV in the 1990s.) Bauwens said we need to implement small reputation systems within affinity-based groups, and said the Internet is moving reputation from its former locus in the family or community to widespread groups based on common interests.

Beth Noveck of New York Law School built further on the idea of groups holding on to reputation. She would like to see eBay reputations owned neither by eBay (which can currently wipe out years of reputation with no recourse on the part of the user) nor by the user himself, but collectively by the community that created the reputation. The group should also be able to determine the rules that govern reputation, such as when it can be transfered to another group.

Noveck also raised the problem of boot-strapping reputation. Social networks rely on endorsements by friends. But what if you go online where you have no friends, or your friends all abandon your network for the next big thing?

Another way to build reputation is to contribute a lot--but that works only if you have stuff to contribute that other people appreciate.

On the one hand, I respect the attitude that you have to bring something to the table if you want respect. This has always been the modus operandi of the hacker movement. If you code something good, you're allowed in. And why shouldn't you have to prove yourself to earn respect?

Still, I recognize that the hacker ethos assumes people have access to computers, as well as access to training in programming. Furthermore, hackers have trouble recognizing that coding skills aren't always coterminous with ethics--or maybe ethics just aren't their concern.

Similarly, depending on recommendations from friends works great if you earned a degree from Carnegie Mellon and worked at Google for three years. But what if you got your degree from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia or from JMIT in Radaur, India, and the only places you've worked are small firms that most programmers in Europe and the U.S. haven't heard of?

Noveck said that if we invest in groups, we can use those groups to derive the benefits of reputation (such as finding jobs) without depending on the wider ebb and flow of reputation such as people find by Googling.

More generally, reputation is becoming more and more clearly tied to the goals of each site that maintains reputation. Just as standardized tests in school are best suited to predicting your ability to take standardized tests, reputation systems on a site determine only your performance on that site.

Another metaphor is the theory of evolution. Some of the (sophisticated) critics of evolution complain that "survival of the fittest" doesn't predict what's desirable. Are white moths or black moths more "fit"? The answer depends entirely on the environment. When trees are light-colored, white moths dominate, and when they become covered in soot, black moths proliferate. Your reputation has to adapt to the sites you visit in similar ways.

A good example was provided by Mari Kuraishi of GlobalGiving Foundation. As part of their goal of linking potential donors to deserving non-profits, they look for ways to help donors choose from a bewildering variety of deserving organizations around the world. Kiraishi apologized a bit for the crudeness of their measures: they calculate how often a project puts a report up on their site, and how successful the project is at raising money on their site. They also ask donors to rate the value of the information posted by a project.

None of those simple measures really determines whether a project is meeting the needs of its population. But I don't believe we should disparage the measures, because they do reflect one important criterion: how well the project uses GlobalGiving. In short, the rating system is self-referential, and that's a legitimate goal.

A more general principle of making reputation site-specific was articulated by Goel, who has created a system that he believes would encourage more user participation in rating systems such as the ones maintained by eBay and

The system would be funded by revenue-sharing from the sites' profits. Users would be asked to assign both positive and negative ratings. When a user assigns a positive rating to a product that is later bought, the user gets a reward.

An audience member pointed out that unusual tastes are penalized. What if very few people like the books you do? Goel explained that the rating system should not be seen as a moral judgment upon the individuals doing the rating. The fact is that if an individual chooses products or vendors that most people dislike, that individual is of no use to the site. It's a purely instrumental view of reputation--and it may be the most viable.

Despite the benefits of restricting reputation to affinity groups, we currently depend more and more on the Googling sort of reputation. This can be hard on people who become notorious for silly reasons. Daniel Solove of George Washington University Law School offered several amusing examples. He recommended that people avoid using the Internet to shame others, because news spreads beyond the point where it's productive and it lasts forever.

But the most disturbing presentation of the day was by Danielle Citron of the University of Maryland's School of Law, concerning harrassment of women online. She hammered home the extent of the problem with alarming anecdotes (such as the famous history of the death threats against programmer/author Kathy Sierra) and statistics.

A lot of women write under gender-neutral pseudonyms that don't permit them to be identified by name, or go offline altogether. This denies them the benefits discussed so far of reputation, including the reputation that potential employers measure by doing online searches.

Citron looked at the history of terror as well as the sociological literature on group harrassment, and pointed out that all the contributory factors are accentuated in the online world, while inhibitory factors are reduced. Online, it's easy for harrassers to find each other and work together; they can remain anonymous; they face little risk of being found and prosecuted or of facing retaliation by the victim; and so on. Like Tushnet, Citron would like to put more of the burden on ISPs to do something about harrassing content, because that's where the power over the harrassers lies.

In response to the Sierra incident, Tim O'Reilly has proposed a blogger's code of conduct. Although it hasn't been picked up by bloggers, Zittrain said a system like that could be valuable if it's simple and its value becomes easily understood.

tags:   | comments: 4   | Sphere It


0 TrackBacks

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Comments: 4

Thomas Lord [12.15.07 04:36 PM]

It makes some sense to do two things at once: put up a public face or faces that attempt to construct the most highly difficult to evaluate "reputation" you can -- encourage people to make mistakes about you, if they seem headed in that direction already; also go about real life and make real friends and build a real social network that has nothing to do with database entries on somebody else's web service.

If enough people do that, it helps to make manifest the contradiction in the entire on-line identy/reputation/trust scheme.


Aaron Williamson [12.15.07 10:58 PM]

While it may seem at first that reputation from one site to another may have no connection or relevance, the variety and disparity between the different sources of reputation could, themselves, create another level of reputational meta-data...the online equivalent of a personality profile which could be more robust than many that have been developed in the past. Wouldn't the higher level analysis of all those reputations reveal a broad, action and interaction based model of personality that could reveal the humanity of the user?

Data only gets more useful the more it is aggregated; separating reputation data keeps us from a truly fascinating and relevant model of reputation-based online interaction.

Ewan Gunn [12.16.07 03:10 AM]

"The fact is that if an individual chooses products or vendors that most people dislike, that individual is of no use to the site. It's a purely instrumental view of reputation--and it may be the most viable."

You -need- the unique feedback from users. There is a difference to products that have no feedback or negative feedback to those that have even some feedback. Perhaps the localisation of the site is not sufficient, that within large sites (especially like Amazon) you have multiple -sets- of users with only fringe overlapping on likes and dislikes. All that this system will do is create an environment where the majority decide which are the best products - there is no concept of individual tastes. The power of comments and recommendations of products on sites is that you can draw links between them - "if you liked this, you might also like that", "other customers that bought this also bought" etc. In fact, most product reviews I have read on Amazon (that are subjective, like books, music etc) say "if you enjoyed so-and-so band/author you will like this". I put far more weight on that kind of comment than on who placed the comment.

Mari Kuraishi [12.17.07 08:19 AM]

Thanks for the reference--we struggle all the time with how to find the right balance between focusing on stuff that we can monitor reliably in real time (which tends to be self-referential, as you rightly point out) and the challenges to incorporating the right feedback that reflects on how well the projects are delivering on the public good.

The latter is sufficiently daunting (technology access, messaging, communications) that even though we're working on it now, we know it will take a while before we can get critical mass.

We're hoping that as we move on both we might discover some correlations--that the ability to use GlobalGiving reflects an openness to adapt to using new tools and respond to market information that should also help community leaders do exactly the same vis-a-vis the communities they serve. But it's still a hunch--we need to keep playing it out. Will keep folks posted.

Post A Comment:

 (please be patient, comments may take awhile to post)

Type the characters you see in the picture above.

Subscribe to this Site

Radar RSS feed