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"Online Reputation Systems"

[written February 23, 2002]

E-mail sucks. Or, at least, mine sure does. While it's basked in the praises of net gurus, then the masses, then the media, then governments, it's lost much of its luster. Sure, the world is significantly different now that almost everyone has an address, but it hasn't been integrated with anything else or protected in any way. In terms of online traffic, e-mail is one of the big killers. I read some article today that said spam e-mail took up an estimated 20% of all e-mail sent. It slows down throughput on even the largest networks like AT&T's (according to them, anyway) and is a huge annoyance to people like me who have their address on what must be every commercial spammer's database. I must get somewhere around 100 spams a day. I got a program that doesn't filter, but instead lets me just delete e-mail based on headers. I hardly ever open up Eudora any more. I don't really write many e-mails or receive many (the obvious relationship between the two should be noted) so it's all essentially spam.

There are a lot of people trying to get rid of such a blight though. At least states are enacting legislation to stop spam phonecalls. And sysadmins are working together a little better to blacklist problem ISPs and spammers. But it doesn't compare with the vast numbers of spammers who are using sources worldwide to get out their important messages of increasing your ejaculation 600%, increasing your penis length 1-5 inches, and increasing your sexual stamina to 5-6 hours, which I believe, were you to apply all three of these techniques, could violate some weapons ban treaty and incur the wrath of the UN.

Anyway, the main crux of this Soapbox is that it really is time that we start thinking about privacy, anonymity, and accountability on the Internet in more serious terms. While those words immediately strike fear into the crazies who believe that we're one day away from beginning a Nazi regime with no free speech or privacy, what is closer to reality is that we need to start setting up protections for individuals online.

One thing that I think money could be made in somewhere online is in an online identity database with some sort of solid backing by companies/organizations/online sites. What I would like is for all projects that you work on, auctions on eBay you participate in, black marks from the Internet community, results in your online gaming forays, your contributions to online forums, and so on to be stored in a central system where your online reputation could be ranked against others, if you opted in for it.

I know that people reflexively say they require anonymity when using the Internet, but what if you chose to have a reputation online? What if you chose to link your identity to your accomplishments and contributions online? What if you wanted people to have more trust in you when they met you, and a better idea of what your interests were and how you actually felt about certain things? What if people could look up your identity and not only see your seller's feedback on eBay (to see if you could be trusted in sending them goods in exchange for money), but also see how you were rated in terms of usefulness on a political messageboard, or how good you were at Warcraft III online, or whether you'd ever been blacklisted by ISPs for e-mail spamming, and so on?

What if, by electing to sacrifice some privacy, you were given a concrete identity that tracked your overall reputation, generosity, friendliness, and whatever else that could be tracked? What if being a good online citizen entitled you to certain protections from the organization that held your identity, like defending you from attempts to sully your name, or by actively going after people who sent spam your way, or by investigating people who tried to hack you? This goes back to my idea about having smaller communities/neighborhoods that took care of those who chose to reside inside them. If you're an individual online, you really don't have time to defend yourself against certain things that under other circumstances would be protected by lawyers and police, so you need a larger organization that devotes itself to taking care of its own.

What interests me most about online reputation systems is unifying all the different projects and games that people do online in one place so that they all actually mean something in a larger sense. People spend months carefully improving characters in online games like Diablo II: LOD and EverQuest, even spending real money to buy equipment for their characters. But when those networks go down for whatever reason, all that work is lost. Same goes for attempts you made to, say, work on an open source project to, for instance, build a PHP web interface to a database.

But if you could have a reporting system made up of lots of online gaming companies or large organizations holding lots of user info, there could be a standard for how much people contributed to certain areas of the Internet, whether they were liked or not, whether they acted maturely and intelligently or not, whether they made a difference or not.

What you have, in effect, is stuff that David Brin might be proud of. A large integrated system that encouraged global feedback and assessed the accountability of individuals or companies or orgs. Suddenly the Internet starts becoming more substantial and more organized, and more helpful to people seeking to find the rare gold nuggets in a river of worthless rocks.

And the best part is, if you don't want to take part in this system, you don't have to. You don't have to log in to these networks under your main identity if you don't want to. But if you want to have your performance tracked, then you just enter in your login and password. Otherwise, you're still free to post anonymously to certain forums, or play online games without anyone knowing who you are, or whistleblowing or breaking big news without compromising your safety. You can easily live off the radar if you choose, but you won't be entitled the same protections and benefits that you would if you chose to divulge your reputation.

Identities could be ranked on a large scale, showing who the most reputable people online were, overall or broken into different categories. You could plot overall reputation growth among all online people and perhaps track whether online communication and commerce was improving or getting worse. You could track which projects/games/endeavors were most popular at that exact moment. You could quickly find the most knowledgeable people in different areas of studies or services. A complex and thorough series of charts and graphs could be published regularly tracking any and all combinations of statistics collected. You could start to map what the Internet world was like instead of merely guessing like we do now. For a truly dynamic world that the Internet is, real-time tracking of the online population would make everything more efficient and more productive. Resources could be allocated more efficiently and people would know which areas needed work and which ones had boom written all over them.

For any business that undertook the effort, I think there might be a huge payoff for the first one to get into that area. To standardize the database and to add all the required features. People will spend money and spend lots of time competing against others and improving their reputations on online networks or even in single-player computer games like The Sims or Black and White. People in Diablo II: LOD will spend hours trying to find one piece of equipment that will only better their stats by a very small bit. Sellers on eBay are fanatical about making sure they have no bad reports on their eBay feedback ratings. The end goal is not fixed, and you have to constantly try to adapt to the newest and best thing out there. You don't just reach the maximum level and sit there. You have to keep trying to better yourself.

Of course, real world achievements and statistics would be incorporated not soon after, once you convince groups, organizations, and companies to start contributing that sort of stuff as well. You may think it sounds like some sort of perverse FBI-like scheme to collect information about everyone, but in reality it would be stuff available to all and not stuff that was truly private, like police records, credit records and ratings, that sort of thing.

What I want is the stuff that we actively do to make the world better to be acknowledged and considered.

Maybe later, you could have AI bots inserted into the mix as well. Once AI starts doing things like helping people out with answers by crawling tech support bulletin boards, or facilitates organizing movements and protests, or helps people kill things in online games, or destroys the opposition in online first person shooters or strategy games or chess, and those sort of things, they'd be able to have that standard system to try and improve their own reputations as well. AI would start competing with each other to be ranked as the most helpful bots. Bots would try to increase their knowledge and/or skills in certain games in order to be recognized as the best bot, thus attracting more attention and questions than the other AI bots.

I don't know. Maybe it's all just a crazy idea. But I'm really tired of Internet fragmentation and feel like it could be so much better, so much more convenient, and so much more content-rich if people just dropped some of their bullshit fears with regards to privacy, anonymity, and freedom of speech.

And let me just reiterate so that you're well-aware. You don't have to take part if you don't want to. But you'll miss out on a lot if you don't, and if it's implemented intelligently. Why can't we reward good behavior?

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