The notion of a digital reputation first came up in my discussions with Phil Becker, editor of Digital ID World about three months ago. Ever since then, I’ve grown in my fascination over the concept of reputations, what they are and how a digital reputation might mirror reputations in the real-world.
Reputations are both deep and complex at the same time, in one instance serving to amplify reality (“…she was larger than life.”) and in another instance oversimplify it, (“…he’s amazing.“). Reputations are not limited to people, but can and do apply to groups, organizations, companies, countries, governments and even objects.
Having a good or positive reputation can serve to make your life easier, (e.g. “…of course I trust you, your reputation precedes you.“) just like having a negative reputation can work against you, many times in ways that you’ll never even realize (e.g. “…his resume looked like a perfect match, but when I inquired others who knew him, I found he had a poor reputation as a team player, so I didn’t hire him.“)
But what is a reputation and how might a digital reputation affect you in the future?
First of all, a reputation is not something that’s internal to you. Yes, it’s YOUR reputation, but you don’t have a reputation with yourself per-say. Reputations only really exist within the context of your interactions with others, and therefore, a reputation can be viewed as existing in the space between you and others.
While a reputation can be thought of as distinct, separate and external to us all, they are inextricably linked to us, and don’t exist outside of the context of their owner for which they refer. In some instances, a reputation can become so independent from us that they ‘take on a life of their very own.’ In these cases, reputations can actually drive how we act, rather than how we act dictate our reputation. For example, sometimes we find ourselves acting in uncharacteristic ways, many times unconsciously, just to support an external perception amongst others of who we are that is no longer true to our being.
A reputation is comprised in part by what we say and what we do over some period of time and in some particular context of an interaction with others. As an individual, I might never know all of the different facets of my reputation, just as others might also never know every aspect of my reputation. Needless to say, reputations are important to us all because they affect us in very tangible ways, serving to make our lives easier or more difficult, depending on whether they are positive or negative.
The reason we care about our reputations is two-fold:
1) our reputation is often tightly coupled with our sense of self-worth, serving as an external reflection of who we are, or who we wish to be and
2) our reputation can precede our physical being, serving to ‘open doors’ or generally make our lives more convenient or to close doors, in which case we are blocked from doing something or going somewhere, and we might never know why.
At any moment in time, our reputation is nothing more than a snapshot of our historical interactions with others. If the snapshot supports what we say about ourselves, then our reputation is positively amplified (R+1). If the snapshot contradicts what we have said about ourselves, then our reputation is diminished (R-1).
As reputations baring any weight and credibility are only built over time, it’s difficult to truly circumvent their creation. This is often why we learn early the value of ‘borrowing’ a reputation. Namedropping is nothing more than an attempt to place oneself in the positive glow of another’s positive reputation, hoping that it will make our life easier in the process or gain us access to something which we would not normally have access to on our own. How many times have you specifically gone someplace with someone who you knew was bearing the credentials and reputation of being ‘well-connected.’ (e.g. “I’m good friends with the owner and he always let’s us in for free.“)
Reputations are likely the most important quality enabled by identity and I believe that digital reputations will likely become the core and central reason why individuals will choose to have a digital identity in the future.
eBay™ uses a simplified version of digital reputation to allow individuals to quickly see whether or not a buyer or seller is trustworthy in their ecommerce transactions, but what if the concept of a digital reputation was expanded to encompass all facets of ones identity. The reason this is important is that I may be completely trustworthy within one context and completely untrustworthy within another. Let’s examine the attributes of a reputation.
Attributes of a Reputation
What You Say – To begin with, many people believe that a reputation can be created by what they say about themselves. Bragging is in essence nothing more than a naïve attempt to short-circuit the creation of a positive reputation, often eliciting the exact opposite, which is a reputation that he/she is insecure. Of all the ways to create a reputation, telling people what they should think of you is both the weakest and carries the least amount of weight in the real world. That said, what you say about yourself can serve to amplify a positive opinion of you if it is consistent with your actions (in their experience). Likewise, what you say about yourself can negatively impact one’s image of you if it is inconsistent with their experiences with you.
What You Do – “Actions speak louder than words” embodies this attribute of an identity. Nothing serves to more quickly establish a reputation than ones actions. When we say, “…what they say and what they do are two different things,” we’re really making a profound statement about ones reputation, namely, ‘you can’t trust what they say, because in our experience, they don’t follow through.’ One’s perceived actions, combined with ones words, constitute the foundation of a reputation.
What’s Public – Certain elements of our reputation are public, that is, generally known by us (the owner of the reputation) and by others who know us. I know that many people think of me as creative and honest, two elements of my reputation that I consider positive attributes. Because I view these elements as positive and because I’m aware of them, I work hard to reinforce them by saying and doing things which are both creative and honest. Generally speaking, we work to reinforce positive elements of our reputation and diminish negative ones. If I knew that I’d been branded a ‘tight-wad’ when it comes to paying my bar tab, I might over-pay in the future to counteract a negative impression of my reputation as being generous.
What’s Private – Certain facets of my reputation are private, and will never be known to me or others. Individuals who choose to create a new identity are doing nothing more than running from their reputation. The same way that individuals might attempt to conceal their past and reputation from others, others might also feel compelled to conceal elements of our reputation from ourselves. While many of us are aware of some of the negative attributes of our reputation, we will likely never be aware of all of them, and as a result, we’ll never actually know when and where our future has been walled in or blocked off because of them.
What Context – Lastly, while in real life and in every day conversation we do in fact attempt to summarize an individual’s reputation (e.g. “…she’s an amazing person.“), the fact is, our reputation is contextual and it is quite possible for me to have a positive reputation in one area of my life with individual A and a negative reputation in another area of my life with individual B.
The Digital Reputation
While historically reputations have been a somewhat vague and subjective, in the digital world they are likely to become more objective, binary and long-lasting (all the reason to take them seriously). Biologically, time is a built-in eraser, allowing us to forget and move on. In the digital world however, where memory is cheap and caching the norm, our reputations are likely to become more persistent, at least in the areas in which the law has not intervened (e.g. driving tickets are erased every three years and bad credit every seven). Probably more important, in the digital world, our various reputations which are today disconnected are likely to become more connected, if not by us, then by others. Think this is far fetched? Don’t think for a second that my reputation as a frequent flyer is not in some way connected to my reputation as an individual who rents cars when I’m out of town, and that’s just the beginning.
The fact is, systems specifically designed to create and track our digital reputations do in fact exist today. They are disguised as cookies, packaged as awards programs and renamed to convenience time-savers. As individuals navigating an increasingly complex and interconnected world, our slime-trails spell money to the private sector, and control to the government sector. As the digital reputation is an off-spring of digital identity, ensuring that we maintain control in how they are built, used and accessed is essential to our future as a free society that holds dear our right to privacy.