Credit where credit due: Charles Stross and his book Accelerando provided the tangible idea of the Reputation Market to me.
What is a Reputation Market? Rank EVERYTHING!
We as humans been comparing and rating things since ... well, forever. We rank everything:
- New York Times Bestseller list
- IMDB's popularity ratings of all movies and movie-making professionals
- Social cliques we form in school (and sadly, in the professional world) are rankings of human beings.
- Lists to help judge and reinforce legislation, like cities with the highest crime rate, or states with the lowest literacy
- FBI's most wanted
- Billboard Top 100 currently popular music
- Website recommendation sites like Digg, Reddit, and slashdot to tell us the flavor-of-the-day-website
- We rank personal credit rating by letting companies who charge up to 30% interest dictate how credit-worthy we are while they get tens of billions in bailout money from taxpayer dollars.
- Mainstream TV news is a popularity ranking system, since god knows they only show us what their studies have concluded is popular. (And sadly, I'm not just talking Faux News)
- And, of course, the stock market, the popularity of corporations based on speculation, fear, and hope.
We rank everything.
But so far, ranking is done in very specialized, isolated, context-light ways. They are done by specialized sets of individuals, be it government agencies or news organizations or corporations, rather than people as a whole.
A Reputation Market is the ranking of everything, by everyone, with context. It is, in essence, the popularity of everything and everyone with the data of who-likes-what publicly available. It is an instant snapshot of how popular or valuable something is. It is not controlled by one force - it's controlled by everyone. And it's coming. I give it ten years at most before it's used on everything and everyone. And that's both scary and exciting.
Inspiration from Stupid Facebook Applications
Clearly, this "who-likes-what" database is useful for marketing purposes. The data is available for product and brand creators to see how popular their items are, and to take a peak at their demographic. This is all in a behind-closed-doors fashion, and it's far from an exact science, since the data is highly contextual. As a hypothetical, if I were a movie production studio, I could talk with Netflix and use the data to figure out what Netflix users are interested in. If Netflix has enough users, it might be a sample size large enough to be valuable. My company would realize this is still just Netflix users, and studies would have to be done to compare Netflix users to average movie-goers, DVD-purchasers, and so on. In addition, my company would have to realize this is just movie data. I have no cross-connection to likes for other types of data - music, food, cars, etc. Sure, I could have a deal with Amazon.com, and start looking at Amazon movie sales with book sales, and maybe I'd be able to piece together a book-movie like relationship, but it's still based on data coming from only two sources.
Let's look at Facebook, whose user-base is now in the hundreds of millions. There is a fundamental difference between sharing "likes" in a commercial site like Netflix, and sharing them with a social network like Facebook. The difference is that data I share with a social networking site and make "public" explicitly is for public consumption. Okay, it's half-true, as most data is only seen by "friends". But let's talk about "friends" for a second.
Who's On Your Friends List?
Are the people on your "friends" list really *just* your friends? I can't call everyone on my contacts list "friends" when a lot of them are people I have strictly business relationships with, family, and people I know on a social, acquaintance level. The word friend implies a level of trust and loyalty, and networking on a social application such as Facebook doesn't require loyalty, and is a very low level of trust (at least for me, who doesn't post pictures of me boozing it up and then hope no one tells my boss, as I've read stories about people losing jobs over). And yet, the way we're using social networks, we're clearly connecting with more than just friends. I look at my LinkedIn profile, and maybe a handful are "friends" in the more traditional sense.
Building A Case For The Reputation Market
Back to Facebook we go. Let's make some assumptions here:
- Social Networking as a trend in society will continue to grow, as it is useful and people are avidly looking to connect with other people. This is because of the reasons that they always have - shared interests, friendship, and business and cause opportunities. (All of these boil down to "shared interests" really, anyway.)
- The major social network players already are starting to play nice, and will continue to cross-connect. (I connect my flickr account with facebook, I can embed YouTube videos just about everywhere, )
- People don't mind sharing data which is perceived as trivial and/or non-personal. (My sex life, or absence of one, is private. What carbonated beverage I enjoy is not. I may choose to share information about the latter, but will not share information about the prior.*1 )
So let's assume that we see "liking" everyday things become commonplace among social network users, which in turn is also becoming commonplace with most of the population. (I'll know it's ubiquitous when mom and dad friend me on Facebook, ahahah!) This data is now rich with context, and will be a boon to marketers. If I'm the Coca-Cola Company, I might learn that I can market the soda Tab to fans of the musician Jonathan Coulton. Heck, Google Mail does basic contextual recommendations already*2.
Let's take this a step further, and say that all this data is *public*. I think it's a reasonable assumption that this is the way things are going, because companies already horde this data, and eventually the rest of us will wake up and demand that as long as it's being stolen from us, we all ought to have access to it. And if the US government doesn't pick up this and mandate it, inevitably an open source movement will. And VOILA! The Reputation Market.
Visualizing the Reputation Market
So what does the Reputation Market look like? It will probably look like a Stock Market website, with a portfolio of everything. The portfolio will have a short description, and will either replace Wikipedia, or embed Wikipedia pages*3. Each page will have a brief listing of all online references to the person or thing, and for Premium Reputation Market members, you'll be able to have access to every public reference anywhere - television, radio, newspaper, blog, web forums, etc.
Shiny Line Graphs
There will be charts describing how much something or someone is blogged, talked about, linked to, referenced, etc. Add in a rating system for reliability and skill (eBay ratings of sellers as a place to start thinking about this), and plot all these values over time. Finally, there will be a central chart that aggregates all of this data into one value, one number much like a stock market price. And that's where the investing begins.
Most brands will be owned by their original corporations that spawned them, and will not be open to investing. For example, Snickers is owned by Mars Corporation. But what if Mars wanted to IPO Snickers as a brand? Suddenly, it's a spin-off brand with what amounts to a mini-corporation right there. Or, there could be options to have it still run by the originating company, or to have it fully spin-off. Rival candy-maker Hershey's might buy the Snickers brand, and suddenly the products and brands become just as / more important than the companies that own them. Whoa.
Benefits for Small Brands
Smaller brands looking to expand will have a public way of promoting their products based on user feedback about *quality*, not merely marketing dollars pushed into advertising campaigns. Sure, multi-million dollar marketing campaigns will still be effective, but growing small businesses usually don't have the capital to do much advertising.
Let's say you're a local Mexican-style restaurant. Let's say your salsa is so good that you sell lots of it in bottles out of your restaurant to eager local customers. Maybe you convinced the local grocery stores to carry it on their shelves. Can you get your customers to rank your salsa online? How much easier would it be to expand your salsa business if you could provide customer feedback in a standard, trusted source? Sure, you can do your own studies, but they will cost your business money, and does not carry the reputation of the Reputation Market behind it. Simultaneously, let's say I'm a big snack food company looking to acquire a new salsa brand. Now I have a convenient way of searching for reviews and finding your salsa brand as a possible acquisition, or, at the very least, the recipe.
For People, Empowerment
Let's look at the cautionary aspect of this, first. The counter-argument is that people who IPO their personal brand will be abused, much like celebrities have been handled and manhandled for years. Ask almost any recording artist about how they are commanded by their record label in everything from appearance, distribution, marketing, to product endorsements, and how little control they actually have over their brand image. People IPO'ing themselves as a brand are going to have to worry about who's owning them and who's controlling them. It's not a new problem, but it will be a new problem for people who would not have been a celebrity before.
It's my hope that a more open Reputation Market would give people more say in this matter, rather than less. There would need to be rules that are pretty different for your own personal brand than a corporate one. The market would work in a fashion similar to a regular business contract, with limits and rules to protect the talent and the investors.
Look at the other side of this. We're already controlled by the restraints of our environment. Our physical location limits our education, employment, and entertainment possibilities, well, at least until logging into virtual worlds becomes everyday. Our governments limit us in other ways, some governments worse than others. Once we're employed, our employers further limit what we can do, and not just on company time. And our schedules limit us - we live busy lives and find ourselves trapped trying to just squeeze as much free time for social lives and entertainment as we can.*4
It's Got To Be Voluntary
It's important to understand that any brand promotion - especially individuals - has to be voluntary. If this means that people want to expose their brands, that's great. If people want to only show it to friends or potential employers, I think that's just as valid, and probably what the majority of people will wind up doing anyway. Essentially, for individuals, it's a social networking tool, and participation has to be voluntary.
If we were given the opportunity to force organizations to compete for our brand ownership, basic supply and demand theory tells us that we will get more value out of it. The way it works now, if I make a name for myself, let's say, the way Ask A Ninja did on YouTube, I'd be lucky if a few (or even just one) networks offered me a contract. If people were able to illustrate their value as a brand in a public setting, like a Reputation Market, they'd be able to extract funding on a level much closer to what they're actually worth.
And realize, this Reputation Market doesn't only applies to entertainment, because it will contain more than popularity. How popular someone is really doesn't matter so much if they're a network engineer. Popularity is a measurement of success for entertainers and brands. Reliability and talent are measurements of success for everyone. So the Reputation Market would need a socially networked application that describes experience and includes a recommendation system. Oh, wait, we already have that. It's called LinkedIn. And as the Reputation Market evolves, either LinkedIn will join the fold, or they'll evolve to include more ways for more people to provide feedback, both positive and negative.
Okay, What Does This All Mean?
First of all, and probably most importantly, a public Reputation Market is *not* the end of privacy. People will still choose to not share certain facts, and if companies insist on breaking those rules, lawyers will make sure those companies comply or die by lawsuit. I think even Facebook, which does a *decent* job of letting you customize what you share, still needs a lot of work. But it will happen, either by Facebook or another social network, and all social network sites will adopt these measures, just in the same way as everyone stole the Twitter-feed status updates.
In a more general perspective, technology won't solve our current self-centric nature, but we can help guide social network technology to improve it. I think people crave their fifteen minutes of fame. People dwell on their popularity. It's not the most healthy thing, but people are competitive and life is tough. People are unsure of themselves and so we naturally worry about how popular we are. Technology will ride alongside that, and, if we're smart we can plan for this and sculp tools that will make things a little better. It's easy to feel isolated, especially growing up, and simply reaching out and finding people with similar interests can be a huge help to someone's self-image.
Will social networking and the Reputation Market feed egos? Sure. Will it let us to get a broader perspective on who we are as individuals? Absolutely. It's this self-knowledge that is at the heart of improvement of self.
But remember my suggestion is that this be voluntary. If your Reputation score is not favorable, don't share it. If you don't want people knowing details about your Reputation, then keep it private, to your friends only.
Would companies or people use a low Reputation score against you? Sure, but employers already do research into your reputation in checking your resume, references, and past employers. It seems better to me that I'd have a Reputation that was public, that I could check myself; I can know exactly what's negative about me, and how I can go about improving myself and my image. America is a country of second-chances.*5 A Reputation Market would certain alert people to the past, but it would provide a place to prove someone has actually turned over a new leaf.
Ignorance is the Heart of Fear
It's knowledge of others that gives us a bigger perspective of the world and makes us less xenophobic and afraid of different cultures. The ability to make meaningful connections with people around the world means we're less likely to drop bombs on one another. The ability to see worth in people around the globe and be exposed to different ways of thinking means tolerance and challenges us to be a little less self-centered.
The Reputation Marketplace is a tool for democracy and small business. It is a medium in which individuals and small brands can be recognized as valuable. By contrast, traditional media puts value on product brands and a select set of global celebrities. Ever since the invention of mass media with radio and television, we've looked up to big media as if they are the keepers of power, as if they had some secret to the universe. Since the Internet, tools like YouTube and MySpace and Second Life are a start at empowering people to create and be seen by many people, without having to sell themselves out to giant companies. People have value to themselves and now have ways to show people.
A Reputation Market is really not all that different for what's out there already. It's just collected. It doesn't stop privacy, but it does hold people accountable for their public actions. And it helps reward those who've done well, and for individuals, it would be voluntary, just the same way social networks don't demand you share all of your data. Ultimately, we'll give away data where it helps us. A Reputation Market would be a tool for you to use your own data to your advantage.
*1 I'm fairly conservative in this regard! People share an AMAZING amount of personal stuff on Facebook and MySpace and such. The whole "sexting" phenomenon blows my mind, when I read statistics like something like 1/5 of underage kids are sending R-rated pictures of themselves via phone text message. A new generation of kids is growing up with social networking and will continue to think in a paradigm of "openness is trust". The amount of stuff that will be normal to be shared will continue to grow until such a point where society is forced to take a good, hard look at privacy and figure out what really is private. Right now, the US Constitution does not explicitly guarantee privacy. It's inferred from a few of the Amendments in the Bill of Rights. But then again, we didn't have electronic surveillance 200 years ago, did we?
*2 Google does Gmail ads by SCANNING ALL OF YOUR EMAIL AND RECOMMENDING THINGS BASED ON WHAT YOU WRITE AND WHAT IS WRITTEN TO YOU. If that sounds scary, then you have a smart attitude toward your data. Thankfully, Google has been a benevolent data dictator and, so far has seemed to be on the side of data security on this one. Google has much more to lose by messing with its users privacy in Gmail than users have to switching to another mail service. I think that fact trumps any sort of company "Do no harm" policy". I still love my Gmail. And I still love that they genuinely seem to care about my privacy. Even if I can't sort my emails by attachment size. But I digress ...
*3 after convincing them to stop censoring on what their power-users think is Important and provide a Wikipedia page for everything and everyone. Wikipedia's "only list what's popular" bias is a whole 'nother blog topic, right there. It's inevitable that Wikipedia will have an article about everyone, or will be obsoleted by another website. Maybe Wikipedia just doesn't want to deal with having to monitor so many articles with the risk of juvenille site graffiti for people that they don't like. Perhaps what we need is a section of Wikipedia for people and things that haven't met Wikipedia's
*4 This is entirely a matter of perspective. Tell this to a factory worker 100 years ago, and you'd be laughed at, as they worked 10-12 hour days 6 days a week. On the other hand, with the state of the economy, I know plenty of people with more than one job. And minimum wage sure ain't able to support cost of living!
*5 Well, except for felons, whose lives are pretty much tarnished forever. That is - unless they were already a celebrity, in which case they wind up getting more popular. Sad irony. But this is not an article about prison reform.