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Zero Sum Reputation Games

Silicon Valley entrepreneur Auren Hoffman gave an engaging presentation at the Yale Conference on reputation in cyberspace this morning. Here are some points from his position paper:

1. You should know more about yourself than anyone else knows about you.

Consumers should have the right to find out what data is being collected about them. As a consumer, you should be able to go to DoubleClick, AdBrite,, Google, Yahoo, Aggregate Knowledge, etc. and a list of all the websites that track you. You should be able to go to Choicepoint, Experian, Acxiom, Rapleaf, etc. and see all the data they collect on you. . . . And you should be able to access this data for free at anytime.

2. You should be able to opt-opt.

You should have the right to opt-out, either wholly or partially, of being tracked. That means you should have the right to tell DoubleClick to never track you, or just not on sports sites in particular.

#3 – Your data should be owned by you and be portable anywhere.

You should be able to move or copy your data from one location to another location. Essentially, you should be able to export your data from Doubleclick and import it to a different system. When you join a new social network, you should be able to take your social graph from Facebook or LinkedIn with you and tear down these walled gardens.

I generally agree with all these propositions, but Hoffman’s optimistic tone struck me as unwarranted.

First, as I asked at the question time, aren’t many reputational assessment systems dependent on negative information? If people can “change the data” any time, won’t that undermine them?

For example, FICO (or VantagePoint) scores strike me as an inevitably zero sum game. The only value of a high score is being higher ranked than the subprime masses below. But Hoffman disagreed–he characterized FICO scores as merely a prediction of likelihood of repayment, and postulated that everyone could get a high FICO score if everyone were likely to repay.

I see that point, but there are certainly some zero-sum examples. For example, not everyone can be on the front page of Google. Moreover, Michel Bauwens pointed out that many reputation managers create artificial scarcity. For example, why does Wikipedia so assiduously delete biographies of those not deemed “famous enough” to be included?

We can also note how frequently “grading on a curve” is used in colleges and law schools. Ideally, all could get an A if all performed at some high level of competence. But it turns out that those outside the system are more interested in “who is the best” (and worst) rather than getting some sense of what package of skills and knowledge was demonstrated by the A’s, B’s, C’s, etc. Given that, in our time, all knowledge seems to aspire to the condition of science, quantitative “measurement” seems destined to trump characterization . . . .however rich the latter may be, and however deficient the former may be.