Are Online Reputations Portable?
Posted by: Rob Hof on November 10, 2005
For years, both sellers and buyers on eBay have bellyached about not being able to carry their reputations—the feedback ratings they get from each other on their transactions—to other sites. With some sellers garnering tens of thousands of positive feedbacks (AAAA+++++ fantastic five-star eBayer!!!!!!!!!), they clearly have value to a lot of folks.
Or do they? …
Mary Hodder thinks not, according to a post by Union Square Ventures partner Brad Burnham following an event they held recently. Mary thinks that eBay is such a "bizarre social environment" that reputations earned there don't really mean much anywhere else. And it's true that people aren't always entirely honest in their assessments because they fear retaliation if they give a poor rating.
All this matters far beyond eBay because, as Brad notes, "If value [on the Web] is shifting to trust then a generalized reputation system could theoretically become the organizing principle behind a large and diverse set of web services." If such a system can't work, that would potentially stunt the growth of a lot of services, from blogs to tagging sites like del.icio.us to person-to-person e-commerce sites like Craigslist.
I share Mary's apparent doubts that a single reputation system is workable. But I think the constant demands by people to carry their eBay reputations elsewhere indicates there is a lot of value in them outside eBay's walls--and by extension, other site-specific reputation systems also might be portable to varying degrees.
The thing is, eBay's feedback system doesn't have to be perfect to be valuable. If someone has 3,500 positive ratings and very few negative ones, that does mean something to a lot of people--and it likely would mean something to buyers and sellers on another e-commerce site. That feedback rating won't get you any advance respect at, say, Slashdot, which depends on its own reputation system to determine what tech news gets highest play.
But that's OK. My credit rating, another measure of reputation, doesn't mean anything to my readers. It means a lot, though, to the mortgage broker considering whether to give me a loan.
Context matters for reputations, but it seems to me that trust earned in one place can transfer to other places, even if that transfer entails some kind of reputation discount. The bigger question is whether services such as eBay, which has jealously guarded those feedback ratings from being used by buyers and sellers on other sites, will open up their reputation systems to be used Webwide. Hope so.