MAS 964  ·  Techno-Identity  ·  Spring 2005

Public and private reputations

There are no bodies in cyberspace; instead, we have reputation.

Trust is one individual's assessment of another person, sitution, thing. Reputation is a community's collective assessment.

Reputation can be an important element in maintainng the integrity of a signaling/communciation system. Conventional signals are kept honest only if there are costs to being deceptive. One way a community can impose such costs is through reputation. In a community where there is reputation, my past interactions will color my future interactions with others in the community. Reputation works as a means of enforcing social norms and honest signaling only when there are repeated interactions; if I do not plan to interact further with members of the community, the cost to me of damage to my reputation is minimal.

Reputation requires identity, memory and communication. Identity means that individuals are not anonymous; they have some consistent form that is recognizable over time. Memory means that information persists over time; recognition is an aspect of memory. Communication means that information moves from one person to another.

Reputation is not only a component of signaling systems, it is also one of the things people signal about. If you have a good reputation, you want this to be known; if you do not, you want to hide this. How do people signal their reputation? What makes these signals reliable?

Reputation can be public or private. Public reputations are available for anyone to see. Often, they are attached to the person (or persona). The ratings that buyers and sellers accrue on eBay are manifestations of public reputation; so was the scarlet letter that Hester Prynn was forced to wear in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel.

Private reputation information is maintained within the minds of members of a group or community. People communicate this information privately to each other. This can be a highly respected activity: a big part of being an academic is writing evaluations and recommendations. It can also be a disdained pastime: gossiping about other people's private lives, while a nearly universal activity and fundamental to the maintainence of community norms, is [often disapporved of and there are societies that have gone so far as to condemn gossips to death].

The dynamics of reputation signaling depend on whether it is public or private, on whether the evaluators are known or anonymous, and on relative strength of the tie between evaluator and subject and between evaluator and receiver. Fear of retaliation may keep me from publicly giving a negative assessment of someone, or I may know that my best friend is a lazy and unreliable worker, but I may still want to help him out by recommending him for a job.

The value of reputation information to its audience depends on several factors. For reputation information provided to a by b about c - b must be honest. If b has some motivation to be dishonest - if his relationship, either postitve or negative - with c is stronger than his relationship with a, then b may be motivated to provide false information. But even if b is honest, there is the quesiton of how conguent b's assessment is to the assessment that a would make. Any assessment is subjective - an assessment is valuable to me only if I agree sufficiently with the concepts and beliefs that formed the assessment.


required readings

on gossip:    Nicholas Emler. Gossiping (2001) In W. P. Robinson & H. Giles (Eds.), The New Handbook of Language and Social Psychology(pp. 317–338). New
York: Wiley (see email for password)
on public repuation systems:    Peter Kollock. The production of trust in online markets. In Advances in Group Processes (Vol. 16), edited by E. J. Lawler, M. Macy, S. Thyne, and H. A. Walker. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press. 1999.
  Resnick and Zeckhauser. Trust Among Strangers in Internet Transactions: Empirical Analysis of eBay's Reputation System. In The Economics of the Internet and E-Commerce. Michael R. Baye, editor. Volume 11 of Advances in Applied Microeconomics. Amsterdam, Elsevier Science.
   Chris Dellarocas. The Digitization of Word-of-Mouth: Promise and Challenges of Online Feedback Mechanisms, Management Science Vol.49,No.10,October 2003
   Friedman and Resnick. The social cost of cheap pseudonyms. Journal of Economics and Management Strategy 10(2001): 173-199.

useful sites and optional readings

 an extensive bibliography    Reputation research network at the University of Michigan
 on gossip:    Eder, D., & Enke, J.L. (1991). The structure of gossip: Opportunities and constraints on collective expression among adolescents. American Sociological Review, 56, 494-508.

Gluckman, M. (1963). "Gossip and Scandal (Papers in Honor of Melville J. Herskovits)." Current Anthropology 4(3): 307-316.

Merry, S. E. (1997). Rethinking gossip and scandal. Reputation: Studies in the Voluntary Elicitation of Good Conduct. D. B. Klein. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press: 47-74.

Paine, R. (1967). "What is Gossip About? An Alternative Hypothesis." Man New series 2(2): 278-285.

Abrahams, Roger D. 1970. A performance-centred approach to gossip. Man, New Series 5, no. 2: 290-301

Hess NH and Hagen EH. Psychological adaptations for assessing gossip believability.

misc:    Michihiro Kandori. Social norms and community enforcement. Review of Economic Studies. (1992).59 pp 53-69. [optional]
   Kate Fox Evolution, alienation and gossip: The role of mobile telecommunications in the 21st century (good bibliography on gossip; paper itself seems sponsored & lite)



  1. Read the papers.
  2. Answer the following questions:
    • eBay is an example of a public reputation system. What motivates users to provide feedback? What motivates them to be honest? Are they equally motivated to provide positive and negative feedback? Compare the relationship of the feedback provider with the subject of the feedback and with the audience for the feedback. What influence does this has on the reliability of the system?
    • Describe in clear and concise detail the costs and benefits to the participants in a model public reputation system of the different possible actions they may make (i.e. deceptive or honest acting; punishing or not punishing transgressors). Do the same for a model private (gossip based) system. Don't forget issues such as the possible mismatch between the rater and the audience, etc.
    • Describe a real life situation in which reputation information is exchanged, either publicly or privately. Ebay has been extensively written about, so pick something else. You can use reviews, teacher recommendations, gossip exchange in a social group, etc. Describe the situation in detail. Is the information reliable? What keeps it so? What is the relationship among subjects, raters and audience? What are the costs and benefits the participants receive? How well does this fit with the model you described above?

please make your essay available by Monday Feb 28 midday