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Jeff Bennett

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The Evolution of Reputation -- How Do We Build Trust in Online Communities?

Posted: 01/11/11 04:47 PM ET

Our reputation is important in life in so many ways. It is the sum of many parts that identify who we are in this world.

Prior to the Internet, reputation was all about how we were perceived in our local community. How did we treat people? What church or synagogue did we attend? Were we good neighbors? What activities and causes did we support? Did we obey the law?

Since then, reputation has expanded with the increasing complexities of our modern world. We now all have a credit rating that captures our past history of paying bills, which is important in determining our worthiness for credit cards, car loans, and mortgages moving forward.

Reputation has also expanded with international travel, which necessitates the use of passports. In each of these cases there exists a continuously evolving reputation for an individual that can be identified by a face, name, or other unique identifier. Reputation builds over time and is stored with how you are identified.

The adoption of the Internet, however, has presented it's own unique and challenging issues for identity and reputation. In particular, the early expansion of the Internet featured individuals assuming separate identities for user names -- a behavior that still persists on many sites, and that I believe yields unproductive consequences. Operating as some unidentified alien with no public connection to our actual selves leaves no concern over sullying reputation. We were essentially given an identify free pass, which some chose to exploit with some pretty bold behavior. We were also free to roam the Internet using multiple aliases and to operate in a way that had no regard for the community of users we were involved with.

eBay broke new ground building a reputation management system for it's community that has been adopted by many sites. Other large communities have chosen to ignore reputation management altogether. With the expansion of the social web, reputation management is going to become an even more important determinant of an individual's ability to maximize their online experiences.

We are starting to see reputation models expand in some of the next generation online marketplaces like Etsy and Swap.com (where I am CEO). In these markets, sometimes you might know the other person you are directly transacting with due to social connections -- though most times you will not. Reputation is earned in these communities in many ways like tenure of membership, earned badges for participation and involvement, transaction fulfillment, accuracy of product quality rating, timely shipment and other forms of engagement. The members of these communities that have earned quality reputations stand to be more effective going forward as more and more community members will want to engage with them as trusted sources.

Just like in the days of old, reputation has again become paramount, and your parents' old saying "Keep your nose clean," again rings true. Mess up your reputation in yesteryear, and you'd have to move to the next town to try to start anew. This axiom, however, does not exist in today's vastly interconnected world. In the months and years ahead we will be judged by our collective actions both online and offline, which cannot be erased.

While some users don't pay enough attention to their reputation on the web, others pay so much attention it limits their usage. It is incumbent on us as an industry to get in front of this to establish more awareness and best practices for our fellow digital citizens.

It's also important to note that not all sites or apps are created equally. Sites and apps that support reputation best practices and seek safety for their members should be rewarded. Those sites and apps that foster bad business practices around reputation and privacy should be pressured to change, or suffer the repercussions of fleeting communities.

The time is now for industry thought leaders to come together to address this. It is essential for the sustainability and optimization of this truly incredible social Internet. Tell me -- what are your thoughts and recommendations on the opportunities and issues presented with online reputation management?