Some People Are More Equal Than Others

Those of us who live by and are addicted to our e-mail and IM need little discussion of the power of the Internet as a communications medium. But among the most revolutionary, and perhaps least understood aspects of online communication, is found on almost any site where two or more are gathered: the ability to post and read online ratings, messages, opinion, and commentary.

The numbers speak for themselves. Last October in their study, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that over 33 million American adults regularly rate products they have seen online. Over 44 percent of U.S. Internet users above the age of 18 have contributed their thoughts and files to the online world.

The value this offers to buyers and sellers is clear. Look no further than eBay, which not only encourages, but also makes it painfully simple for buyers and sellers to rank each other. If you are about to buy from someone who has 5,000 ratings that average above 99.9% approval, you will buy from them without pause.

The good news is that the Internet allows for thousands, if not millions, of opinions and feedback to help us make decisions, and understand the world better in our daily lives. The bad news is that thousands, if not millions, of opinions and feedback can be an overwhelming cacophony. And, in fact, not all opinions are equal.

When we need a voting machine - when quantity of happy consumers makes us feel safe - aggregate numbers can tell us a lot. But when we are looking for nuance, looking to understand if the opinion being written is either valid (the person posting has some legitimate expertise) or relevant to me (the person posting is like me, or how I'd like to be), many services come up short.

As I have written often, the Web is about the power of the individual - as an aggregator of her own interests, experiences, and truth. It is about finding and presenting that which we want when and how we want it. Into the cyberworld, we bring not only our choices, but also our reputations. And if we want our opinions to matter - not be just a vote, or a venting -- our reputations matter most of all.

Our reputations our made up, fundamentally, of three things - who we are, what we have done, and what people think of us. In the real world, reputations take years to make and have a multiplier affect. The greater our character and integrity, the greater our accomplishments, the more people value our opinions and having relationships with us. In the online world, where most of us prefer if not anonymity at least an ability to wall off parts of ourselves, building reputation has its challenges.

Voting machines help here - "rate the reviewer" on certainly gives some sense of the quality of one book review versus another. But it does less to tell me whether the person writing about that book knows anything about the book's subject in the first place.

My head of technology writing a review on Stephen Hawking is different than my history major head of marketing. Not necessarily better or worse, but a different perspective and expertise worth knowing about in advance.

I go to Europe often, and especially love Italy. While I think I have a pretty good handle on the areas I have visited, I know that I have not dusted the surface. I am always looking for that new restaurant, new wine, unique historical spot, or rarely seen work of art. I also travel often with three young children. Reading a review of a city from someone who visited Rome for the first time, or a hot young couple looking to disco well into the evening is, well, not so helpful. - a destination that has over 300,000 visitors who post on their travel experiences -- has been around a few years and wrestled reputation systems pretty powerfully. They marry voting ("rate this review") with a thorough, but anonymous, profile of each contributor - their background, expertise, interests, experiences - so I have some sense of not only how others view their postings, but if that person has the experience relevant not only to a given country, but to MY needs in that country.

Who we are, what we have done, what people think of us. There are thousands of opinions out there that could matter to me. But they are not all equal. Reputation is the key to finding what matters.

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