[Dave Birch] A very pleasant evening out at Mobile Monday in London talking about digital identity in the mobile world was made even more pleasant because Ajit was on the expert panel with me. He made a couple of points about reputation that deserved further discussion but there wasn’t time. He reminded me that Colin at Bankwatch had pointed me to this quote: “Somebody who has carved violins all his life should have more editing power than me on Wikipedia’s Stradivarius page”. A couple of months ago (but I can’t remember exactly when), I heard one of the founders of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, being interviewed on the BBC and he was talking about the viability (from my perspective, the desirability) of an economy founded on pseudonyms and reputation. He made complete sense, as did Ajit. I’m coming round to the view that this should be one of the expert panel topics for the forthcoming Digital Identity Forum in London on November 20th/21st.

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It seems to me that there is a firm business foundation to all of this. The author Don Tapscott talks about the ‘see through’ age saying that

You can’t hide anything anymore.

He’s talking about it from a kind of whistleblowing perspective, saying that if companies get up to no good then they will be found out because of blogs and cameraphones, e-mail and memory sticks. In the magazine piece, he ticks off example after example of corporations that have recently been humiliated after being caught trying to conceal stupid blunders. There’s Sony, which put a rootkit – a piece of spyware – on music CDs as a secret copy-protection technique, only to wind up in court when bloggers revealed that the code left their computers vulnerable to hacker intrusions. There’s Microsoft, this time on the wrong side of the transparent shower curtain, offering to pay people to buff up the company’s Wikipedia entry. And Diebold, which insisted its voting machines were unhackable – until a professor posted a video of himself rigging a mock election on them. The video went viral and racked up some 300,000 YouTube views.

But there’s another aspect to this, I think. If you can’t keep things secret, proprietary, controlled then you can’t compete on that basis anymore. On the other hand, it’s very hard to compete on the basis of reputation, because reputation has to be earned over time, it has to be built up step-by-step and it has to be “awarded” by the right population. It’s all about the subnetworks, again. But this perspective indicates that once reputation becomes the basis of competition then it will be much harder, not much easier, for new entrants to get a foothold. You might have a great product, but if no-one trusts you then how do you persuade anyone to try it?

To make trust, reputation and the economy built on them work properly, though, we need digital identity, digital signatures and real security. But as I said last night, the disruptive innovation will probably be triggered by the arrival of brands in the identity space. My mum’s never heard of Verisign, but she has heard of Marks & Spencer, so when Marks & Spencer offer to manage her identity and reputation, there’s the potential for change.

These opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]


  1. It is becoming harder to compete on secrecy and so forth, sure, although the “you can’t hide anything” crowd has probably never actually tried it. Much is hidden and successfully, the Sony cases are simply the rare exceptions.
    The alternate to secrecy is to compete on openness. This is entirely possible, and indeed releases many benefits.
    In payment systems we call this open governance. This is more than smart, it can reduce costs by orders of magnitude. So much so that open governance is disruptive, and you won’t see it in any of your better banks, by simple proof of profits.
    However, openness is not like reputation. Reputation is a completely different thing to openness / secrecy.

  2. > To make trust, reputation and the
    > economy built on them work properly,
    > though, we need digital identity,
    > digital signatures and real security.
    This is a common claim but I think it is wrong. Look at all the high-powered journalists and blogs out there — lousy security, can’t keep spam under control, but they are quite capable of supporting reputation.
    If an act of reputation like this comment can relate a nym like ‘iang’ to words typed herein, then we as a reader society seem to be doing a fine job in analysing the reputation and detecting problems. No security is needed, as nobody is likely to want to post as ‘iang’ to spoil the pot of reputation events.
    (The reason why VeriShy is not a household name like M&S is simple: the browser hides the name, so there is no point in advertising it to *users*. Frequent rant: put the brand of all CA brands on the chrome, guys, and complete the PKI presentation to the users!)

  3. “If an act of reputation like this comment”
    But I can recognise that this comment comes from you Ian. My computer cannot and nor can my blog.

  4. Whose Identity is it anyway ?

    I attended last Monday’s Mobile Monday / Identity Society meeting dealing with Mobile Identity.
    The session started with 4 presentations:
    Jim Cray of Sun went through the Sun Identity Manager service, which I suspect most Identity fundis know well,

  5. Ian…good to meet you on the panel on Monday night. Making reputation work is an interesting one, as it obeys the same increasing returns dynamics that so many facets of social nets are governed by.
    The issue (imho) is that most online socnets are not nearly nuanced enough to have a “governer” effect on these increasing return cycles, whereas human society has developed much more of this over the ages
    To be fair, they are very new and it will be interesting to see if this develops – there are signs that the A List bloggers (now there’s a Zipf’s Law Reputation system 😉 are having a tougher time now for example).

  6. Dave,
    although I think your computer and your blog should help you more, I think there is a limit! Reputation comes not from technical tools, but from networking, comments, at the end of the day: judgement calls. Why would we expect computers be able to process what even minds have trouble discerning?
    We can test this. I propose that we should squish _48 Laws Of Power_ through a google-funded AI engine, and pump out a blog. See if it goes to number 1!
    Hmm… I might lose that bet 🙁

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