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Reputation is Identity

Reputation Wednesday is an ongoing series of essays about reputation-related matters. This week's entry discusses the ways that reputation can make for richer user identities on your site. It is lightly adapted from our draft of Chapter 8.

Imagine you're at a party, and your friend Ted wants you to meet his friend, Mary. He might very well say something like… "I want you to meet my friend, Mary. She's the brunette over by the buffet line." A fine, beginning, to be sure. It helps to know who you're dealing with. But now imagine that Ted ended there as well. He doesn't take you by the arm, walk you over to Mary, and introduce you face to face. Maybe he walks off to get another drink. Um… this does not bode well for your new friendship with Mary.

Sadly, until fairly recently, this has been the state of identity on much of the Web. When people were represented at all, they were often nothing more than a meager collection of sparse data elements: a username; maybe an avatar; just enough identifying characteristics that you might recognize them again later, but not much else.

With the advent of social on the web, things have improved. Perhaps the biggest improvement has been that now people's relationships formulate a sizable component of their identity and presence on most sites. Now, mutual friends or acquaintances can act as a natural entree to forming new relationships. So at least Ted now will go that extra step and walk you over to that buffet table for a proper introduction.

But, you still won't know much about Mary, will you? Once introductions are out of the way, what will you possibly have to talk about? The addition of reputation to your site will provide that much-needed final dimension to your users' identities: depth. Wouldn't it be nice to review a truly rich and deep view of Mary's identity on your site before deciding what you and she will or won't have in common?

Here are but a few reasons why user identities on your site will be stronger with reputation than they would be without.

  • Reputation is based on history and the simple act of recording those histories – a user's past actions, or voting history, or the history of their relationship to the site – provides you with a lot of content (and context) that you can present to other users. This is a much richer model of identity than just a display-name and an avatar.
  • Visible histories reveal shared affinities and allow users with common interests to find each other. If you are a Top Contributor in the Board Games section of a site, then like-minded folks can find you, follow you, or invite you to participate in their activities.

    You will, however, find contexts where this is not desirable. On a question-and-answer site like Yahoo! Answers, for instance, don't be surprised to find out that many users won't want their questions about gonorrhea or chlamydia to appear as part of their historical record. Err on the side of giving your users control over what appears, or give them the ability to hide their participation history altogether.

  • A past is hard to fake. Most site identities are cheap. In and of themselves, they just don't mean much. A couple of quick form-fields, a 'Submit' button and practically anyone (or no one– bots welcome!) can become a full-fledged member of most sites. It is much harder, however, to fake a history of interaction with a site for any duration of time.

    We don't mean to imply that it can't be done – harvesting 'deep' identities is practically an offshoot industry of the MMORPG world (See the figure above.) But it does provide a fairly high participatory hurdle to jump. When done properly, user karma can assure some level of commitment and engagement from your users. (Or at least allow you to ascertain those levels quickly.)

  • Reputation disambiguates identity conflicts. Hopefully, you've moved away from publicly identifying users on your site by their unique identifier. (You have read the Tripartite Identity Pattern, right?) But this introduces a whole new headache: identity spoofing. If your public namespace doesn't guarantee uniqueness (or even if it does– it'll be hard to guard against similar-appearing/l33t-speak equivalents and the like) then you'll have this problem.

    Once your community is at scale, trolls will take great delight in appropriating others' identities – assuming the same display name, uploading the same avatar – purely in an effort to disrupt conversations. It's not a perfect defense, but always associate a contributor's identity with his or her participation history or reputation to help mitigate these occurrences. You will, at least, have armed the community with the information they need to decide who's legit and who's an interloper.

These are some of the reasons that extending user identities with reputation is useful. Chapter 8 of Building Web Reputation Systems offers a series of considerations for how to do so most effectively.

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