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In the Future We’ll All Have Online Reputation Scores

In a recent interview with EMC’s Stu Miniman about the future of the web, I predicted that in 20 years, we’ll all have online reputation scores. Little badges, numbers that communicate our level of authority, this sort of thing. And these reputations will have tangible impact.

Three different trends come together at some point in the future to make this happen. These trends have been underway for a while, but come together at some tipping point in the years ahead. Here’s a visualization of the trends:

It’s helpful to discuss each one, in the context of online reputations.

Rate performance of businesses

eBay, which went public back in 1998, played an important role in socializing the concept of people providing online ratings for online sellers. After we receive our purchase, we rate the seller. The collective wisdom identifies top sellers. Got your eye in that Donkey Kong game? Who are you most likely to trust…?

Amazon picked up on this, once it introduced third party sellers into the mix. You can see the percentage of positive ratings for the different sellers. Personally, I have paid premiums (i.e. higher prices) for the assurance that comes from a higher rated seller.

Yelp has taken this concept of rating a seller, and applied to offline consumer experiences. Want to get a burrito in San Francisco? You’re likely to go with the highest rated restaurants.

These ratings make up for our lack of information about various providers of services. One could do a lot of online research, and asking friends, before buying. But these ratings do quite well as shorthand ways of assessing quality. They’ve made it easy to transact, without knowing someone ahead of time.

The rating ethos is expanding. On Facebook, you can ‘like’ people’s entries. We ‘love’ music on Last.fm. We ‘favorite’ tweets. We ‘digg’ and ‘buzz up’ stories. Implicitly, we provide ratings when we share content via different social networks. Online engagement allows for this.

Migration of transparent work and information online

I found this recent Kaiser Family Foundation study fascinating. The amount of time kids spend online – smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device – is now at an all-time high. There’s no denying this: future workers are going to be more accustomed to online engagement and information-seeking than any generation before. It’s their lifestyle:

More generally, an important distinction from the web of the 1990s and early 2000s is that we aren’t just reading and transacting. Individuals are providing the content. More every day, in fact. We have transferred some of the engagement and contributions from the offline world online. Actually, we’re probably creating more content than we ever have,

For workers, the growth of Enterprise 2.0 continues. A key outcome of that? More and more work is making its way online. When it’s available there, and not just in a Word document on the hard drive or email in an inbox, it’s findable and usable by everyone.Your colleagues know quite well what the quality of your work and contributions are.

Do you think all of this stops, and we go back to message-relaying marathoners, smoke signals and carrier pigeons? No. Enterprise 2.0 and social media will continue their growth apace. And increasingly, this time spent online is through social media.

More and more people will be publishing their work, their ideas, their knowledge, their conversational bits, their creativity…online. It’s just going to keep increasing.

Rely on social media for information

An emerging trend is the transition of where we seek information. Remember libraries, magazines and microfiche? Then the 1.0 websites where we got information? Then the portals that aggregated information from major media sites? Then search augmented all this information consumption?

Well, the next wave is to rely on our social connections to deliver interesting, relevant information to us. As was famously said by a college student in 2008:

If the news is important, it will find me.

A recent Nielsen study confirms this growing tendency to use social media as a first stop to find information:

Admittedly, the leading social sites of today – blogs, Facebook, Twitter – have a ways to go before they become a large percentage of the population’s first choice. And it’d help if Twitter could get their search working further back than a week or two.

But this survey and anecdotal evidence points toward an increased reliance on others to provide information to us.

Putting this all together

It’s that last trend, still early in its cycle, that really points toward the development of formal, online reputations. When we started transacting online with complete strangers or small businesses we never knew, we needed a basis for understanding their credibility. It turns out, crowdsourced ratings are excellent indicators of quality. It also causes small businesses to be aware of the quality of their products and services.

In the years ahead, expect increased usage of social media for getting information and sourcing people, products and services. As an example, research firm IDC just released these survey results:

57% of U.S. workers use social media for business purposes at least once per week. The number one reason cited by U.S. workers for using social tools for business purposes was to acquire knowledge and ask questions from a community.

As reliance on people for information increases, expect an increased need for knowing which strangers provide the top quality information. Note I said “strangers” there. One thing we will continue to do is to rely on our “friends” (social media sense of the word) for ongoing daily information. The people we connect with on the various social sites.

But that’s the only way we will get information. Or make decisions. Great case in point? Google’s real-time search results:

If innovation is the focus of your work, wouldn’t you want to be include in those Google results? Here’s the thing. Google doesn’t just put any old tweet or other form of real-time content in there. As Google’s Amit Singhal stated:

“You earn reputation, and then you give reputation. If lots of people follow you, and then you follow someone–then even though this [new person] does not have lots of followers,” his tweet is deemed valuable because his followers are themselves followed widely, Singhal says. It is “definitely, definitely” more than a popularity contest, he adds.

Note his words: “You earn reputation“.

PR agency Edelman created a ranking algorithm called Tweetlevel, which analyzes people on the basis of influence, popularity, engagement and trust. Tweetlevel was recently used to create a list of the top analysts on Twitter. As the author of that post noted, one purpose for the list was to answer the question: “Should they spend their limited time interacting with analysts via twitter?” Presumably if you’re an analyst in the Top 50, ‘yes’.

Again, reputation being used for a defined purpose.

Ross Dawson wrote a good piece about the changes coming due to the increasing visibility of “people’s actions and character”. He notes the impact of reputation on seeking professionals for work:

Many professionals will be greatly impacted by these shifts. The search for professional advice is often still highly unstructured, based on anecdotal recommendations or simple searches. As importantly, clients of large professional firms may start to be more selective on who they wish to work with at the firm, creating a more streamlined meritocracy.

The mechanisms for measuring professional reputation are still very crude, yet over the coming decade we can expect to see substantial changes in how professionals are found. This will impact many facets of the industry.

And Bertrand Dupperin sees a similar dynamic playing out internally:

Use internal social networks to build a kind of marketplace that would put work capacity and competence on a given subject in relation with needs and allow those who can apply for an assignment instead of blind assignments to those who can’t.

In a world where individuals emerge as important sources of information, products and services, people will need a way to break through the limited knowledge they’ll have on any one person. Look for online reputations to emerge as a way to fill that gap.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

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