Ebay is a market, not a conversation

Matt asked yesterday if I’d written up a version of a recurring rant about why Ebay is not a good model for reputation systems. I think I first started ranting about this at a work foundation conference on social software, and then have subjected various people at the beeb to versions of it. And then today, Clay mentioned the same idea in his talk about the conditions for succesful social environments.

It’s an important point, as Ebay is continually cited as a model for digital reputation, but its not a model that can be transferred outside of the context of Ebay itself. In a way, we have a version of the problem that Clay mentioned elsewhere in his talk – there are very few working reputation systems of a meaningful scale, so we build theoretical models based on this scarce evidence. This is as dangerous as earlier theories of identity based on activities in MUDs and MOOS – a small survey size will give misleading results.

The problem with using Ebay as an example is that its not intended to be a reputation system at all, but a part of a very efffective economic system. Sure, its about trust, but only in as much as trust will help faciliate an economic exchange. I use the reputation system to judge whether to buy a record, but I wouldn’t use Ebay to make new friends.

As Clay said today, reputation can’t be quantified and transferred (perhaps the term ‘social capital’ needs to be revised?) but is an emotional, fuzzy construct. We can help people find ways to recognise and represent this fuzzy warm feeling about each other, but we can’t abstract it altogether. Reputation is not a ‘thing’, but a feeling.

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