Thoughts on digital reputations

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As a follow up to my comments at the Yale Law School Information Society Project Symposium on Reputation Economies in Cyberspace, I wanted to talk a bit about digital reputations. By this I mean some way of attaching numeric data and supporting information to a person, an object, a collection of such, or relationships among such to indicate degrees of quality or preference.

Here are some example:

  • The numbers of stars given to a product sold at, together with the individual rankings and the comments.
  • The percentage of sales of a product sold at that are not returned by the buyer.
  • The number of “yes” answers to the question “was this review valuable to you” associated with a review of a product sold on
  • An electronic version of your college transcript, together with your grade point average.
  • Your scientific reputation based on the number of papers you have published, the reputation of your co-authors, and the journals in which you have published them.
  • Your job performance evaluation, on some numeric scale.
  • The number of friends you have in Facebook or connections you have on LinkedIn.
  • The number of hits you have on a website.
  • Your Google page rank.

A question that was posed at the symposium was whether reputations were portable. As many speakers mentioned, reputations must be taken in context. Two college transcripts are not comparable among universities that vary significantly in quality, unless you normalize both for the quality differences as well as differences in grading schemes. Note that the “quality of a university” is itself a digital reputation.

Your reputation in one social networking site is not instantly portable to another because the uses of the sites may vary and the people participating may differ. Yesterday I read about specific social networks for wine lovers. Your reputation there might not and probably should not translate to a reputation in LinkedIn, which is more business oriented.

Digital reputations are computed or inferred from basic data and metadata. The number of formulae to compute reputations is unbounded: if you come up with a weighted expression, I can always fiddle with the weights to get something else. The trick is to come up with a scheme that works well for its intended use. For example, if you use some reputation system to judge potential hires, you can measure that against their workplace evaluation a year after they joined. If necessary, you can refine or even replace the formula.

It’s easy to come up with reputation schemes that are circular in nature. If I compute my reputation as the average of the reputations of my friends, and they do the same for themselves, we have a circularity. In a similar way, I presume, Google excludes self-links from its page rankings.

No one number coming out of a reputation formula will ever say everything about a person or object. Temper the quantitative approach with qualitative ones to ensure that what you are measuring matches what you are otherwise observing.

Since potentially anything about a person or object could be part of a reputation computation, we need to have some sort of common representation, some standards for these. In fact, we probably have multiple ways of doing this right now. Depending on to whom you speak, you can easily find several standards for representing a person, especially if you call that person a “patient,” a “guest,” a “passenger,” or a “customer.”

I know some work has been done to unify this data through inferencing engines, and I suspect that the Semantic Web may find broader use since so much of the data coming out of e-commerce and social networks is highly tagged. Thus “creeping semanticism,” as my colleague David Fallside called it, may combine nicely with more brute force methods.

What is likely to be more important than specific standards for the data will be standards for how the privacy of that information is handled. When it comes to privacy, there can be no vagueness or ambiguity. We’re seeing some market experiments right now with the privacy of information in social networking sites. This is waking consumers up to the possible problems of allowing unfettered data about themselves become publicly known.


  1. I’d love to see an online reputation system. Perhaps only Google has the clout to back such a system. I think that it is very possible to create such a system. One could create basic characteristics (name, age, location, employment) and then break down into character factors: intelligence, patience, timeliness, activity ratio, etc. Under each of these one could continue to break down significantly. e.g. Under patience one might look at the individual’s patience in different social arenas – friends, enemies, companies, employees, employers, etc. This allows a tiered method of knowledge which offers at a glance overviews with deeper drilling for more accurate and detailed representations. For example, under intelligence one could find arenas of knowledge and define on a topical basis the individuals intelligence in a given area.
    I’d leave it up to the social network to determine what points of reputation it accepts and denies. For example, LinkedIn might determine that users on Facebook deserve to have their reputation ported, but not those on a wine tasting or rock music social network. By so doing they can ensure an accurate representation of their users. This, of course, leaves little networks with little influence, but no surprise there, aye?

  2. Little networks have little influence? How little is known about the dynamics of non-linear systems. This will be fun.

  3. The interesting thing related to this has to do with identifying who’s who and mapping them between all of these various social networking sites. OpenID is an attempted step in the right direction, allowing me for example to identify myself on dgrin (a photography forum) as my smugmug (a photo hosting site) account. This instantly would allow someone to jump from my recommendation for how to reshoot an image to my image collection, giving them an idea for if my results are something they want to strive for. Slightly less “automatic” are manual cross references, such as in the garage sale forum on dgrin when folks identify themselves as “joebob1942 on ebay” when they put up a for sale thread, not quite as confirmable as openid, but it at least gives you an idea of who they claim to be.

    But then, how do you control the connection of data? Does MandyTheITGoddess want her linked in ranking influences by her ‘after hours’ pursuits where she’s MindyMinx, one of the top ranked authors on literotica (NSFW)? And if someone manages to make the connection, is there anything she can do to “undo” it?

  4. The point is not how to do it but why and if.

    Privacy isn’t given up like childhood. It is nutured and matures. This time we need to think harder about the social ethics of the technology instead of just adding more technology.

    We are forging our own chains.

  5. Hi Bob,

    Looks like a fascinating symposium, with a stellar group of speakers. Interesting that so many from last year’s Berkman Center Identity Mashup have this year split between two events on opposite coasts: the Yale symposium (Clippinger, Zittrain) and the Internet Identity Workshop (Searls, Reed).

    Creeping semanticism of the microformats. That’s great. Sounds appropriately creep-y!

    I agree that social ethics should play a greater role in driving technological development – and am thankful for the inclinations toward an open, transparent development philosophy that have gained ground in the last decade or so. Certainly, individual identity (privacy) is something that evolves, that matures. That point is made by Clippinger in Crowd of One and in the position paper that he posted on the symposium website. Can we move down this path towards portable identity, while also assuring that, as Clippinger puts it: “that the locus of control is with the individual, at the edge of the network”? I am hopeful.

    The ethical goals aspired to by some of the Yale speakers are high indeed: “an interconnected ecology of socially beneficial reputation systems — to restrain the baser side of human nature, while unleashing positive social changes and enabling the realization of ever higher goals,” writes Hassan Masum in his Manifesto for the Reputation Society. Such lofty goals will likely require us to plan for, not only portability among websites, but also from cyberspace to physical space. For decades, scientists like Elinor Ostrom have studied design principles for successful management of common pool resources (the atmosphere, say). I think our growing online understanding of designing for community – including reputation – can inform those types of real world applications.

    You may have seen the rentathing slideshow, which tells a simple story of cyber/physical reputation systems:


  6. My issue is that we start with the ‘kumbayah’ speeches, claim we can knit this together with loose fitting technologies, then as soon as the conference room lights are turned off, the rats come out of their holes and nibble with the spiders. Panglossian systems don’t interest me. The web is fast transitioning from a knowledge enabler to a means to destabilize and destroy. It is a massive feedback system without filters that allows any person with any agenda to thump hard on the microphone. What we portray as freedom of expression quickly turns into the demeaning of same. We speak of the wisdom of crowds without accounting for the unleveled competency of nodes.

    No apologies. If we are going to do the ethical thing, we have to examine the shaping behaviors, the means, and in detail, the failures of the web and ask if it isn’t more than just a little risky to enable it to shape our personal lives. Historical comparisons to TV and other media fail to capture the immediacy of engagement, the addiction of immediacy in feedback, and the speed with which we overturn safe technologies in favor of time to market.

    Sad but so: after more than 25 years of working on these systems, I just don’t trust the conference speakers anymore and I certainly don’t trust the iron vendors who promote systems based simply on their ability to sell more iron.

  7. Len, you think the Web’s a tinderbox, waiting for someone to throw in a match and burn it all down ?

    You may be right. What shall we replace it with ?

    Some of us need it for business-to-business work. Some of us need it for business-to-consumer. Some of us need it for science and acaemic pursuits. Some of us like it for leisure.

    Business-to-business we can do with SNA ; but that’s a little cumbersome for the other uses we have for the Web nowadays.

    What should the next generation Internet look like ?

  8. I think there is a mathematically bias here, you can come up with many “digital reputation” mathematical models however must remember that models can torn apart.

    Finally, Bob that you can not measure/compute everything. Digital reputations are intangible based on value perceived (kind of like goodwill), network size is irrelevant.

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