Your Reputation Online: Priceless

In the 2003 science fiction novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, author Cory Doctorow imagines a society where all of life’s necessities are free, and market laws such as supply and demand cease to exist for everything else. Instead of trading in a hard currency, citizens living in this “post-scarcity economy” measure their wealth with an ephemeral, reputation-based currency called “Whuffie.” Doing something that benefits the community, like baking a cake or writing beautiful poetry, increases a person’s Whuffie, while causing a traffic accident or publishing clumsy prose can temporarily put you in a virtual poorhouse. Everyone is wired into the Internet via brain implants and can routinely view and modify others’ standing instantly (and free of charge), ultimately making one’s status the subject of majority opinion.

Even the headiest of idealists might have a hard time imagining a world where food, water, and shelter are free. An economic system heavily reliant on reputation, however, is already showing up on the real world’s web, where singles and swingers rate one another’s dates in chat rooms, buyers trade opinions about various vendors, and online auction prices are often as much influenced by the seller’s character as by a product’s monetary worth.

The technology news site Slashdot, for example, which is based on user-submitted stories and comments, measures member contributions with a “karma” system. When users moderate discussions or submit information to the site, other users can assign them good or bad karma, which affects their status and power in the community. On services like Friendster and Orkut, which help people network, participants often review their newfound acquaintances in glowing or damning terms, affecting their desirability as potential connections.

The world of weblogs (or blogs) also relies on various manifestations of Doctorow’s fantastic Whuffie: When the author of a popular blog links to a site of interest, that site often sees a surge in traffic and improves its PageRank (or prominence) on search engines such as Google, which attracts even more visitors and can lead to advertising revenue.

Assuming the Web remains largely unregulated, traditional currencies of wealth and coercion–in our virtual reality, at least–are likely to be increasingly augmented by, or altogether replaced with, a more equitable system of merit, creativity, and good old-fashioned amiability. And we won’t even need brain implants to enjoy it.

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