11.4 Trust, Reputation and More

In an era where we have nearly unlimited amounts of information at our fingertips, one of the key issues is how to separate the good from the bad, the reliable from the unreliable, the trustworthy from the untrustworthy, the useful from the irrelevant. Unless we get this right, the emerging diverse media ecosystem won’t work well, if at all.

I’ve long believed that we’ll need to find ways to combine popularity—a valuable metric in itself—with reputation. This sounds easier than it is, because evaluating reputation is enormously complex. But whoever gets this right is going to be a huge winner in the marketplace.

What do we mean by reputation? In this context, many things. If someone points to a news article, for example, we have to consider reputation at many levels. Among these:

  • What “media outlet”—traditional, blog, whatever—is behind the article? If it’s The Economist, the reputation starts at a high level. If it’s Joe’s Blog, and I have no idea who Joe is or what he has been doing for the past few years, the reputation starts (much) lower.
  • What is the reputation of the writer/video-maker/etc.? I generally give a high rating to New York Times reporters, but reputation can vary within organizations: I can name a few Times reporters who’ve wrecked their credibility with me over the past few years.

I gave you more detailed exploration of techniques for gauging trustworthiness and reputation in Chapter 3. Detached measurement of reputation is incredibly hard, though, and currently the tools for measuring are at best crude.

In a world of emerging digital tools, however, there are glimmerings of hope. I’ve been begging people at eBay for years—to no avail—to make people’s reputations as buyers and sellers portable. By that I mean people should be allowed to create a badge of some kind, with some real data behind it, that they can post on their own work, with the data made available in a granular way.

Of course, your eBay reputation is not an exact proxy for your general trustworthiness, as a person or as an information creator. For one thing, we know that people are constantly gaming eBay’s system. For another, how you behave in buying and selling goods online doesn’t necessarily predict how you’ll behave in other situations. Still, it may be a useful thing to know.

Your Karma at Slashdot is another useful metric. So are the individual users’ contributions in the collaborative filtering at the Digg and Reddit websites for rating the news. Useful, but clearly not sufficient by themselves to let you make big decisions about someone’s overall integrity.

Combine a bunch of reputation systems, though, and you’re getting somewhere—and a world of interactive data suggest at least the possibility of finding a way to blend various measures into something that is more useful than what we have today.

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