Reputation

2006-01-28

One of the most important insights gained from scientific endeavor in the last hundred years or so is the centrality of information to the structure of life and human society. Consider:

Another key form of information, which enables a wide range of commercial and societal interations, is reputation. Because reputation is so important, care must be taken in correctly understanding its nature. Unfortunately, those who theorize about personal identity (especially digital identity) too often misunderstand the nature of reputation. A case in point is to be found in Trademark Law and the Social Construction of Trust: Creating the Legal Framework for on-line Identity by professor Beth Noveck of New York Law School. Where Professor Noveck goes wrong can be gleaned from the very title of her paper, which argues that reputation is a "social construction" (explicitly created by, and therefore the property of, a group) rather than an emergent property of social interactions. Her thinking about reputation (which she considers one aspect of, or in large measure co-extensive with, identity) is deeply influenced by the metaphor of social construction. Here are some relevant phrases:

We face here a false dichotomy: either reputation is purely an individual construct or it is inherently the work of the group. But recognizing that others play a role in reputational identity does imply that others actively construct one's reputation. In particular, Noveck misses another possible explanation: that reputation is an emergent property of human interactions. Just as prices are not collectively created by economic actors in a market, so reputation is not collectively created by social actors in a community. Instead, reputation emerges; the fact that reputation seems orderly does not imply that this order was created or fixed by a group.

The point may seem arcane, but it has practical consequences. Noveck's argument for collective creation leads her, reasonably enough, to an argument for collective rights:

Call me paranoid if you will, but I get concerned when thinkers talk about collective rights and collective action (we had quite enough of that in the 20th century, thank you very much). It is true that all individuals who wish to productively interact within a community benefit from the existence of reputation as a signalling mechanism; but that does not mean that reputation is a matter of collective interest or group belonging. Reputational signals are used always by individuals within a community and make it easier for those individuals to decide with whom to interact. Thus the benefits of reputational effects are dispersed among all members of the community. But it is a serious error of reification to therefore conclude that the group or community or collective realizes benefits, possesses rights, or pursues actions.

Consider again the analogy to prices. The emergence of prices from economic transactions between buyers and sellers benefits all members of the economic community that is concerned with the product or service at hand (and even members of economic communities concerned with other classes of goods and services, whose prices in turn are affected by the prices of goods and services in the first community). But prices are not therefore the property of all the economic actors in that community, they are not a collective creation of the community, and the group does not have rights to those prices. The same is true of reputation, and it is critically important to recognize the emergent nature of reputation if we are not to be led astray into notions of collective rights that will be inimical to individual participation in online communities.


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