The Evolution of Reputation

Since Tokyo and Helsinki, I've investigated the convergence of portable, pervasive, location-sensitive, intercommunicating devices with social practices that make the technologies useful to groups as well as individuals. Foremost among these social practices are the "reputation systems" that are beginning to spring up online - computer-mediated trust brokers. The power of smart mobs comes in part from the way age-old social practices surrounding trust and cooperation are being mediated by new communication and computation technologies.

In this coming world, the acts of association and assembly, core rights of free societies, might change radically when each of us will be able to know who in our vicinity is likely to buy what we have to sell, sell what we want to buy, know what we need to know, want the kind of sexual or political encounter we also want. As online events are woven into the fabric of our physical world, governments and corporations will gain even more power over our behavior and beliefs than large institutions wield today. At the same time, citizens will discover new ways to band together to resist powerful institutions. A new kind of digital divide ten years from now will separate those who know how to use new media to band together from those who don't.

Knowing how - and who - to trust, is going to become more and more important (has been becoming more and more important for a long time). Banding together, from lynch mobs to democracies, taps the power of collective action. At the core of collective action is reputation - the histories each of us pull behind us that others routinely inspect to decide our value for everything from conversation partners to mortgage risks. Reputation systems have been fundamental to social life for a long time. In intimate societies, everyone knows everyone and everyone's biography is an open, if not undisputed, book. m us up to date on who to trust, who other people trust, who is important, and who decides who is important.

Today's online reputation systems are computer-based technologies that make it possible to manipulate in new and powerful ways an old and essential human trait. Note the rise of web sites like eBay (auctions), Epinions (consumer advice), Amazon (books, CDs, electronics), Slashdot (conversation) and Plastic (publishing and conversation), built around the contributions of millions of customers, enhanced by reputation systems that police the quality of the content and transactions exchanged through the sites. In each of these businesses, the consumers are also the producers of what they consume, the value of the market increases as more people use it, and the aggregate opinions of the users provides the measure of trust necessary for transactions and markets to flourish in cyberspace.