Friday, June 02, 2006

Your Reputation Precedes You...Forever and Ever

Social computing is a pretty hot topic lately.
"There's been a lot of interest recently in the social aspects of Web 2.0 experiences because of their tendency to alter the communities that use them. A lot of folks call these pull-based interaction systems, which value reputation and trust above all other things..." ~ The shift to Social Computing by ZDNet's Dion Hinchcliffe
I'm excited about the future of social computing, while at the same time, somewhat apprehensive. I like to imagine "What if..." just to see where it takes me. Bare with me while I dream about a possible future.

Here's the deal. I didn't really dwell on the negative side of social computing until a colleague suggested to me that individual users should all have Internet reputation scores. These could be logged in a central repository, accessible by all users, sites and ISPs. He was so blindingly excited about this Orwellian concept of identity and wanted to start driving its adoption, that I almost threw up.

Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should.

A portable identity and reputation standard is a wonderful idea...for eCommerce, as in consumers and businesses engaged or to be engaged in a transaction. As a buyer of goods on eBay, I want to know if customers have had good experiences with sellers. As a seller of goods, I want to know if customers are prompt payers and willing to resolve any issues in a reasonable manner, if needed.

But apply a universal rating to private individuals in all their online social endeavors? Come on. Wow. Nothing like institutionalized bigotry...oh, wait. I forgot about .

It's not like we don't have enough social caste systems in place already. My daughter doesn't wear Prada or drive a Hummer to school, so she isn't hanging out with the kids who do. Not that it matters. And I'm not the CEO of a big corporation or a brilliant engineer being courted by Microsoft, so you won't find me playing tennis with Bill Gates. Not that it matters. My significant other is not a political pundit or powerhouse, so the White House won't be calling him anytime soon to prep him on Iraq. And again, not that it matters.

It's reality. We all get it. We are human and we make choices. And sometimes, we make mistakes.

On the Internet, we each have a wonderful opportunity to discover new friends, learn new things, and perhaps evolve into a smarter and different person, regardless of our current status in the physical world or any past foibles. An Internet-wide user reputation system would change all that forever, severely and unnecessarily limiting our online freedoms.

Users who frequent user-generated communities, enjoy gaining favor on selected sites for the quality of their posts. What if you never had a chance to erase, hide or transform your online identity, even after you'd become a better online person?

I reminded my colleague that there are too many nutjobs online who spend all day plotting revenge on some poor newbie who mistakenly typed IN ALL CAPS in a favorite forum. And for some reason, self-appointed Net police seem to run in packs. Over the years, I've seen users gang up on someone for one indiscretion, just because it was good sport. A user judged by one community as a scoundrel could be a hero in another...but he might not get the chance, should new technology be misused to assign a "Human Value Score."

I can only begin to imagine what injustice will be served by an overreliance on a technical standard not meant for cataloging human beings. Why we continue to substitute technology for good old neighborliness is beyond me. Ubiquitous online ratings would have the potential to stalk users for the rest of their natural lives...can't we just give individuals the benefit of the doubt?

Much of the Internet's value comes from an ability to gather info and participate anonymously, devoid of superficial barriers like universal personality systems attached to one's ankle like an boat anchor. With many aspects of SciFi a bold reality today...intrusive direct marketing, identity theft, and domestic spying...I don't want to live my live in a fishbowl. There's a reason I'm not rushing to become a contestant on a reality TV show, with insensitive strangers deciding whether or not I can stay or go. And I value my privacy. I don't want everyone to know everything about me, especially if I had a bad hair day and posted in haste.

So, while I whole-heartedly support the development of social computing standards, merchant ratings and earned reputations, let's make one thing clear...portable ratings are best used for consumer protection and business development, not for Scarlet Letters.

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