Web 3.0 and Personal Reputation Management

I’ve only met Tom Williams twice, in passing; both times at the Mesh Conferences. He's an extraordinary man, with a storied career, who was famously hired by Apple to work in Product Marketing at the age of 14.

Still, brief though our encounters have been, in today's world of "ambient intimacy" or "continuous partial friendship", our overlapping areas of attention and interest constitute enough of a relationship for Tom and I to have become connected as "friends" on Facebook.

I'm grateful for this connection, however superficial it might be. Without it, I might not have come across Tom's latest blog post in which he briefly discusses his ideas for "Web 3.0".

It's not that it's a hugely important post, per se, but it does include one particular nugget that serves to pull together a number of the thoughts that have been floating around my head over the last few weeks – threads that started to knit together into some semblance of semi-coherence at Mesh.

Tom says: "Web 3.0 will be technology-driven and about creating reputation and order for UGC." (User-Generated Content)

The bright spot in this comment, for me, is the fact that Tom chooses reputation as one of the anchors for his ideas about the next wave of Web innovation.

I hear resonances of Cory Doctorow's idea of "whuffie" here, and overlaps with the work Doc Searls and others are doing around "VRM" (Vendor Relationship Management - the reciprocal of CRM).

Tom's words help illuminate one of the things that has been bothering me about the gaps between all the various Web 2.0/social software spaces I inhabit. Colin McKay just wrote something that helped draw another of the thought threads into alignment: "Okay, people. I've got a job. I've got a family. I sometimes watch network television. Who is going to invent a Trillian-like app for all these damn social networks? Really."

That's part of the problem. Like Colin, I've been something of a serial joiner when it comes to social networking services – I was into (and rapidly out of) Friendster fairly early on, and have mucked around in spaces such as Sixdegrees, Orkut, Ryze, Flickr, LinkedIn, Xing, eCademy, MySpace, Facebook, MyRagan, and several other services with similar sets of features.

I'm too easily attracted to the cheesy, chintzy cheeriness (to borrow from Betjeman) of these spaces; too often disappointed, disillusioned, or just weirded out once I spend more than a few days inside the latest ersatz schmooze room.

There's a diminishing returns thing going on with social networking products. The investment one is required to make in setting up a decent profile and then adding all the same friends and re-forging all the same connections over and over again is often too onerous to be worth bothering with.

I'm sure I'm not alone in this thought. There are entire nomadic herds of loosely-connected friends, steadily migrating from site to site as we over-graze one service, tire of it, and then move on to the next shiny YASNS that springs up full of the promise of new hotness.

We need, as Colin intimates, some kind of universal personal profiling and info aggregation tool to minimize the repetitive maintenance involved. But beyond the simple repetitive data-entry issue, there's another problem inherent in the treatment of the reputation capital we invest and grow through our use of these social spaces.

In the huge and multi-faceted social software macrocosm of blogs, RSS, Twitter, Facebook, Second Life, and all the services I’ve mentioned above, this is the one consistent, bothersome issue. All the reputation systems that underpin these sites exist in silos.

When you "friend" me on one service, you're giving me a vote of reputation – saying, in effect, "this is one of the people I count among the good guys". Trouble is, there's no way to port your votes, your whuffie (or often anything else) from one service to another.

For example, I have fairly detailed profiles on LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, and a bunch of other places - none of these silos talk to each other without some kind of interim ETL step.

Plus there's that even more valuable reputation/relationship network represented by my blogroll, my email and IM address books, and the many, many interactions I've had through more than six years of blogging.

Every comment I've ever received or left on another's blog, every trackback or link pointer given or received, every blogroll "add" – it's all reputation capital, one way or another. There are tens of thousands of connections in there, hundreds of relationships, and a sizeable handful of explicit or implicit recommendations and testimonials.

This concern was touched on by Jordan Banks of eBay Canada in response to a question during his panel session at Mesh last week. On eBay, the problem is particularly apparent.

One of the most successful community-driven protection mechanisms they have is the feedback forum, where buyers and sellers provide feedback on their experiences with fellow registered users. Every time a sale is completed, the buyer and seller are invited to provide feedback on each other and the buying or selling experience they encountered. In this way, each user builds up his or her own personal reputation that can be viewed by anyone visiting the site.

This is a unique advantage of an online service – it's the clear analog of word of mouth recommendation, the difference being that any registered user can access any other community member's "record of service" at any time. It's a key factor in fostering the spirit of trust we need to make online businesses work.

But the problem, again, is that the reputation record an individual builds up through being a "good citizen" on eBay sits in a silo, in their silo. It's your reputation, but you don't even own it. If you ever chose to leave eBay, you can't take it with you.

James Russell Lowell said: "Reputation is only a candle, of wavering and uncertain flame, and easily blown out, but it is the light by which the world looks for and finds merit."

... and in some circumstances, it's all we have. Where social networking spaces are used to grow and foster connections between far-flung individuals, reputation is perhaps the most important currency of the community. We may all be separated by a mere six degrees, but if I don't really know you, there's no way I'm introducing you to my friend the billionaire angel investor unless I'm able to assess your reputation some way. It's Cory's whuffie idea in action.

I'm still not quite sure where I'm going with this, but I feel the need for some secure, personal repository that would hold all of my connections and "whuffie" together. I want to keep my whuffie in my wallet - but not in a Microsoft Passport/Hailstorm kind of way. Ack, no.

It should include most elements of OpenID, a lot of FOAF, and maybe some of the stuff being worked on by the Attention Trust people.

I want it in XML, of course, and I want it to be incredibly easy to implement and use, as secure as it possibly can be, and extensible without being completely unmanageable.

Naturally, I’d want everyone to adopt it – from eBay to Amazon, Facebook to Flickr, Google to Microsoft to Yahoo.

Critically: no vendor (or government) can own it.

My reputation and relationships are mine. They're the sum of the gifts of friendship and respect people grant to one another over the years; the currency we earn through our life and work. And like the other, folding kind of currency, I should be able to carry my stock of links, linkages and laurels with me from one Web experience to the next.

Perhaps something like this already exists. I need to go dig deeper into emerging whuffie-like solutions such as The Bitchun Society and Yap.

For now, though, time for bed. Two proposals under my belt today and another long day tomorrow. Must rest the old carpal tunnels...