You’re on the Internet doing your business, but who is at the other end and how do you know that you can trust them?
That is what so called Reputation Systems are all about—creating mechanisms to authenticate the identities of partners online and measure just how trustworthy they are or aren’t.
Some familiar examples of reputation systems include everything from scores for vendors on Amazon or eBay to activity statistics on Twitter to recommendation distinctions on LinkedIn to networks on Facebook.
The idea is that we measure people’s trustworthiness through the number of transaction they conduct, reviews and recommendations they receive, and associations they keep.
These are all instances of how we unmask the identities and intent of those we are dealing with online—we obtain 3rd party validation. For example, if a vendor has hundreds or thousands of transactions and a five star rating or 99% positive reviews or is a select member of a power seller” network or other select organization, we use that information of past performance to justify our current or future transactions or associations with them.
MIT Sloan Management Review, Spring 2010, has an article about reputation systems called “Online Reputation Systems: How to Design One That Does What You Need.”
According to the article, reputation systems are “the unsung heroes of the web,” because “they play a crucial role is building trust, promoting quality, improving collaboration and instilling loyalty.”
Without some way of knowing whom we are sending a credit card payment to, friending, or chatting with on the Internet, we would be violating the cardinal rule of safety that our parents and teachers taught us from the earliest time that we could understand that you “don’t talk to strangers.”
I remember a very good video for children produced by Service Corporation International (SCI) called “Escape School,” which taught just such lessons by Bob Stuber a former police officer and child safety expert.
Even as we grow up though the dangers from people criminals and predators still exist; hopefully we are a little older and wiser in recognizing it and dealing with it, but this is not always the case.
For example with online dating networks, people sometimes pretend that they are a rich brain surgeon or the proverbial “tall, dark, and handsome” physique to lure someone on a date, only to be exposed for who they really are upon the first date.
People are inherently driven to connect with others, and online we are able to connect easier then ever before—with people from all over the globe, virtually anytime of the day or night—and it is often tempting to let our heart lead and dismiss any concerns about who we are dealing with. Further, the veil of anonymity online seems to only heighten the opportunities for abuse.
The dangers of people pretending to be something they are not and the need for recognizing whom we are dealing with is an age old problem that society struggled with—from the snake oil salesman of time past to those occasional dishonest vendor on sites like eBay today.
The MIT article states “Small, tightly knit communities arguably do not need central reputation systems, since frequent interactions and gossip ensure that relevant information is known to all. [However,] the need for a central system increases with the size of the community and the lack of frequent interaction among members. In web-based communities with hundred or thousands of members, were most members typically know each other only virtually, some form of reputation system is always essential.”
Predators act out online everyday using social engineering to trick people into divulging personnel or organizational information, getting them to send money (like the fake emails from Nigeria or a lottery) or sending out malware when you click on the link that you know you shouldn’t be doing.
Another example with children is evident on NBC Dateline’s “To Catch A Predator” series where Chris Hansen stakes out the child predators who arrange meetings with kids in chat rooms on the Internet and then make their appearance at their homes or other meeting spots. Child predators prey on the fact that the children online don’t realize who they are dealing with and what their evil intentions are. Thank G-d, law enforcement and NBC has been able to turn the tables on some of these predators when law enforcement is pretending to be the vulnerable kids in order to catch the predators---who are fooled into thinking they are talking to children, only to be caught often literally “with the pants down.”
Whether we are socializing online, surfing the Net, or conducting some form of ecommerce, we must always pay attention to the identification and reputation on those we deal with. As the MIT article points out, with reputation systems, we can use ratings, ranking, and endorsements to build up information on ourselves and on others to build trust, promote quality, and sustain loyalty.
Of course, even with reputation systems, people try to manipulate and game “the system,” so we have to be ever vigilant to ensure that we are not duped by those hiding their true intentions or pretending to be somebody or something they are not.
As social creatures, optimists, and those of faith, we are tempted to just trust, but I prefer the motto of “trust and verify.”