The social problem with reputation scoring

Reputation scores: Should you look?

Reputation scoring – systems, like Kred, Klout and Peerindex that take a look at your online behaviour and put a number against it – are here to stay, like it or not.

As someone who wrote a book about managing online reputation, you might think that I’d be all in favour of systems that call attention to the fact that everything we do online affects our influence. So far, however, I’ve found more problems to the concept than benefits. At the very least, it’s not something we should use lightly, without a thought to the consequences on our behaviour and the quality of our conversations and communities.

The social problem with reputation scoring

A while ago, I said that reputation scores are corrosive. The point I was making is that seeing a metric that is affected by doing things differently online can skew behaviours in sometimes unhelpful ways.

Say that Re-Tweeting more makes someone’s Klout or Kred score rise – well, they might be tempted to start re-Tweeting a lot more than you do now. A few days of over-share and ta-dah: they are now X% more influential than you were last week.

Now, they may drop a few Twitter (or whatever) followers in the process. Enough and their score will dip and they may adjust their behaviour.

Going back to the numbers too often, playing the numbers, de-humanises their online behaviour, makes it less natural. This is where the “personal branding” ethos is problematic: it makes people behave like cynical corporations – or how they imagine they behave – looking at the numbers, tweaking performance, playing the system, instead of getting on with things as human beings. It’s a machine view, an automated approach to an essentially organic, or social organism-driven process.

Real people, behaving naturally, talk about things because they are interesting. They Re-Tweet things because they are worth sharing. They don’t analyse their actions too closely, too self-consciously.

And that’s the problem with reputation scoring. At worst, it can make people behave cynically, calculating their every online action, “optimising” for reputation scores.

Seeing a live score of popularity – and popularity rather than reputation is what is usually measured – can make one overly self-conscious, knowing that every action online has a consequence, a measured statistical consequence that could affect what an employer, a colleague or an organisation thinks about you.

Self-consciousness can be a big step backwards. When we are developing our digital literacies, our ability to live in public online and share in the richness of social networks, we have to overcome fear at every stage.

Ross Mayfield’s power law of participation defined this process well six years ago: we read and then we rate, share, comment, post, initiate discussions, start groups… each stage of this development requires a little leap into the unknown. We have to overcome what Matt Locke calls “the fear of transgression” – that posting the wrong thing in a Tweet, fo instance, can inadvertently turn the attention of thousands of people toward our foolishness.

We overcome these fears. We learn to ignore the risks, or at least push them to the edges of our awareness, so that we can go on living our digital lives and enjoying the many benefits of doing so.

Becoming overly self-conscious sets us back.

Have a look at Friend or Follow, one of several tools that will tell you who you follow on Twitter that does not, or no longer, follows you bak.

I try not to but sometimes I can’t resist.

Who has unfollowed you recently? Let your paranoid side side out for a party and wonder what on earth you did to offend X enough to have you un-followed. Frankly, re it is too embarrassing to ask…

You shouldn’t worry, but you do.

Once you start worrying and the you become self-conscious it affects how you behave online. You withdraw, think twice about posting a Tweet, publishing a post. Or you might start acting oddly – overly self-confident, agressive, whatever you prefer as a mask or a shield.

Other tests and scores

IQ tests don’t tell the whole story when it comes to intelligence. But for years this simple, quantifiable way of measuring intelligence defined what we thought of as “clever”.

You could be not cleverer than someone who got a lower IQ score than you, just better at taking IQ tests than they were. You could be less influential than someone with a lower Kred/Klout score than you, just better at get points from Re-Tweeting and over-sharing generally than them.

As Matt Locke has found in his work on attention and the media, as soon as there is a way of measuring things that is linked to status, commerce or reward, people quickly learn to play the system.

Maybe IQ tests aren’t the best analogy. Maybe credit scoring is more useful – after all some early, clumsy, marketing using reputation scores have rewarded higher scoring individuals with perks like free gifts and airline lounge access.

Credit scoring is something you can easily carry out for yourself and Рwith a little determination Рyour friends, family and any individual or organisation.

It would tell you a lot about how they were all doing, wouldn’t it? But it would also be odd behaviour, and unwelcome if you disclosed it. Some people may check the credit records of people before they decide whether to be firend or how nice they will be to them – I don’t know anyone like that, though – and I don’t want to either.

It should be the same for reputation scoring, regardless of how accurate the method is, just because you can look doesn’t mean you should. Unless… it is a new business relationship, a hire, part of a communications programme. It’s a functional, impersonal thing. We use it because we don’t know them, need to do due diligence and manage risk, manage resources as best we can.

Knowing and not caring

Get a thicker skin. That was one of the rules in Me and My Web Shadow. I should take my own advice, right?

Well yes. But my favourite quote about how to be successful online is still Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy on the art of flying: “You start with a direction, a trajectory, and set out to be yourself. It works as long as you don’t think about falling…

Maybe we should treat critics and our “reputation score” in the same kind of way – it’s there, we take note, sometimes acknowledge, but rarely let them affect our confidence and approach.

Reputation scoring is freely available and here to stay. We just need to work out what the social norms will be – how we will use this in useful ways.

My suggestion for now is that we think of it as something that belongs in the organisational and commercial spheres of life, not in the personal. It’s a game you can play – one way of playing the massively multiplayer social game of life, i fyou subscribe to that theory – but not one that interesting people will want to play with you…