23 June 2014

The other week, I set a bounty on a web forum, offering reputation points that I had earned, in exchange for a solution to a problem I had posted on the site. My request for help now included added incentive for someone to provide a fix.

The site was Stack Exchange, a slick platform for finding solutions in the question-answer format. It has sought to optimise the process of highlighting and rewarding effective answers. The user reputation system is prominent, nuanced and motivates participants in various ways.

Stack Exchange: A community cultivating its value.

Besides the warm feeling of assisting others, reputation points at Stack Exchange enrich the user’s profile, which is linked to them on the site’s jobs board. Points equal expertise which may impress employers or potential collaborators.

Such reputation systems are sometimes said to exhibit gamification. The user is compelled to participate as a gamer does, driven to collect points in the abstract world of the site/game.

Whilst there is indeed a certain thrill from seeing your reputation score jump, complex points that can be used as payment and lead to outcomes beyond the site are in a category beyond gaming. My bounty was there to tempt people to help me do my job. The playing field was the real world of work.

Other contemporary examples of reputation points paying out already exist. Phone provider GiffGaff gives credit in return for your community support and buyer feedback has long affected trust on sites like ebay and Airbnb.

Reputation and credit with every click

We can expect this paradigm to grow and cover an ever larger proportion of online activity and the real economy. Points, earned through knowledge, diligence and dependability, will be spent everywhere, as with my bounty, on goods, on services and on proving your worth as a citizen, a consumer and a person.

The more our online lives are monitored and metered, the more aspects will be ripe for this sort of valuation. Comments and Tweets could be used by colleges to gauge your intellect. Your social connections on Facebook, LinkedIn and everywhere could be used to judge suitability for the workplace. Expressions of interest in pizza and sofas could affect your health insurance costs. The prospects are vast and only just coming into view.

In fact, immense profiling, with its accompanying effects is already widespread in surveillance and marketing data centres. Murky notions of reputability based on non-consensual tracking are something we are uncomfortably learning about.

There are many questions regarding the ethics and effects of counting and commodifying our online behaviour. At this early stage, when my work as a member of a problem-solving community can be harnessed, by bounty, to encourage others as I see fit, it feels very useful.

We should be talking about the opportunities and traps of the reputation economy. It will be a cornerstone of the coming digital terrain.