Will our reputation systems be distributed? Probably not for a long time


The development of reputation systems will be a central aspect of the economy and society this decade. While we are still early in the overall process of building robust systems that are themselves trustworthy, the pace of development is accelerating.

Craig Newmark (founder of Craigslist) is putting a lot of thought into the issue. His recent post Trust and reputation systems: redistributing power and influence, begins:

People use social networking tools to figure out who they can trust and rely on for decision making. By the end of this decade, power and influence will shift largely to those people with the best reputations and trust networks, from people with money and nominal power. That is, peer networks will confer legitimacy on people emerging from the grassroots.

The ultimate issue for Craig is how these systems are developed:

I think the solution lies in a network of trust and reputation systems. We’re seeing the evolution of a number of different ways of measuring trust, which reflects a human reality; different people think of trust in different ways.

We need to be able to move around the currency of trust, whatever that turns out to be, like we move money from one bank to another. That suggests the need for interchange standards, and ethical standards that require the release of that information when requested.

Craig expanded on these ideas in an interview for GigaOm, below.

Craig’s post raises some of the many issues in building effective trust and reputation systems, such as contextuality, transitivity, and system gaming. I’ll return to these issues in another post.

In the video above Craig said that a distributed trust system would be the “killingest of killer apps”. The critical question is whether reputation systems will indeed be distributed or not.

While I’ve long espoused that there is an inevitable shift to open standards, that view is tempered by having seen how social networks today have developed into largely separate fiefdoms, despite the rise of DataPortability and other movements pushing personal ownership of data and data interchange across systems.

The two companies today that are best positioned to take the lead in reputation systems are Google and LinkedIn. While neither are significant players today, both have looked hard at the possibilities and have the potential to trample on start-ups in the space.

I think distributed trust systems are likely to develop, but as usually happens in high-value emerging spaces, this will only be after individual companies have being in concerted battle to develop the space. In other words, most likely this decade will see the rise of single source reputation systems. The next decade may see true distributed reputation systems develop.

The extraordinary value of valid reputation systems means we should hope effective distributed systems will rise rapidly, but I think that’s for the long haul.