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Yale & Reputation Economies

The Green with the Old Campus in the background

Like several other folks who blog, I went up to Yale’s Reputation Economies conference last weekend. Plenty of others have offered thoughts about the conference (including Frank here). Eric Goldman has his own thoughts and a good list of links to other blogs and Rebecca Tushnet very helpfully posted panel-by-panel summaries.

It was an interesting conference, but before offering brief reactions, I should say that the most interesting thing for me was seeing Yale again. It was the first time I had been back to New Haven in over a decade, which was too long. I went up with my father (who is Y ’63) and we walked around the campus quite a bit. Unfortunately, I missed the two big things I was looking forward to. My old residential college, Jonathan Edwards (sux et veritas) is being renovated and the incomparable Doodle was closed. But I got to see the rest of the campus, and though it was slightly more plush, it was somehow pleasant to see how much was the same, at least in the vicinity of JE and the law school.

Yale Law School

Though I rarely stepped foot in the law school back in the late 80’s, it is, like most of the rest of Yale, a truly gorgeous building. It was so striking that it made me wonder what influence that type of architecture might have on the legal education that takes place there. Personally, I often associate knowledge with places. Some of the plays of Shakespeare are hard to think of apart from some of the buildings where I read them and listed to lectures about them. So I imagine that some of the Yale Law students must associate their initial forays into Holmes and Cardozo with the Gothic grandeur of the building.

Come to think of it, a disproportionate number of Yale law students become professors. I suppose we shouldn’t ascribe that to architecture alone, but the school does seem a bit like a cathedral of learning. Might that not influence the way students perceive the object of study? (A point of comparison suggested by a friend: what would Harry Potter’s education have been divorced from the imagined architecture of Hogwarts?)

More after the fold…

So I came to the Reputation Economies conference wondering how the dynamic of Yale’s fame might be tied up with its physical beauty and how its architecture might situate personal experiences and broader social networks.

Of course, architecture probably plays somewhat a smaller part in Yale’s fame as does its history of extreme exclusivity in admissions and, perhaps, a 22 billion dollar endowment that lets it keep the buildings rather nice. But the physical space is certainly one part of the brand of Yale and informs what the place is and what it means to various people.

102a.jpgThe splendor of Yale, however, casts a shadow. Frank has explored how the winning and losing of reputation games can have pernicious side effects in his writing on rankings and Mike has had some really interesting things to say about the prestige economies of law reviews. I’ve been thinking about these issues as well in some of my recent writing, looking at how reputation interests can act as incentives to creativity. I see blogs as very interesting examples of reputation economies — as this person observes, many people seem to blog, at least in part, in pursuit of new relationships and reputation. (Whether that is the ultimate effect of blogging is hardly clear!)

At least on the internet, it seems the term “reputation economy” (see Google) is tied up with blogging, since it stems from the fantasy of Whuffie invented by a blogger, Cory Doctorow. Doctorow co-authors what is usually billed as the #1 or #close-to-1 blog out there, BoingBoing. (Fwiw, Doctorow gave the conference a plug.) The interesting thing to note, though, is that BoingBoing, unlike many blogs, is pretty clearly economic in the classic sense. Its ad sales top $1 million a year, so BoingBoing is an advertising economy, mostly. Like Yale, there’s a lot of reputation capital to be found at BoingBoing, but there’s plenty of hard currency there as well.

The conference, by the way, wasn’t really about any of this. It turned out that although some speakers mentioned blogs a bit, the majority of folks weren’t really talking about this type of “reputation economy.” Instead, the topic du jour seemed to be Facebook’s Beacon kerfuffle. The key questions being discussed concerned the intersection of personal privacy and the business of datamining. That’s a great topic and it certainly has something to do with reputations, economics, and law. But it wasn’t the conference I was expecting. I suppose that I have to agree with Eric Goldman that there really isn’t much consensus on what reputation, much less “reputation economy,” means.

Yet I did enjoy the conference. There were a bunch of smart people offering their current work and new insights. For instance, the presentation of Alessandro Acquisti gave me a perfect story for my seminar next semester on the right of publicity. The story also involves one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, the loss of which was devastating to the society at Ephesus.

This is from the first paragraph of his position paper:

The Greek temple of Artemis at Ephesus (in what is now Turkey) was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was destroyed – not by time, weather, earthquake, or war; it was set on fire and burnt down by a young man in 356 B.C. Captured by the citizens of Ephesus and put to torture, the man claimed that his arson had been motivated by the goal of gaining immortality for himself and his name. So the Ephesians, after executing him, condemned his name to oblivion. But the historian Theopompus recorded his name, and so did the geographer Strabus after him: hence the name of Herostratus became “embalmed [in history], like a fly in amber,” as Smith wrote.

What a perfect example of the way the pursuit of fame can defy conventional economic logic. Plenty of books on the social phenomenon of fame and celebrity start with similar cautionary stories, but it is always fun to spot relationships between the contemporary internet culture and ancient history. Acquisiti is currently looking into how tools from behavioral economics might help understand the successors of Herostratus, people who intentionally pursue infamy on places like Facebook. It’s fascinating stuff and some of his work is posted here.

9 thoughts on “Yale & Reputation Economies”

  1. Great post, Greg, with lots to digest.

    The spatial/architectural theme has a lot of nuance; much of it relates to interior design as well as to Yale’s mostly neo-Gothic facades. (Be careful, by the way, about the phrase “cathedral of learning.” There is a real Cathedral of Learning, and it’s just down the street from my office!).

    In that vein, the most impressive and influential architectural features at Yale (both at the law school and elsewhere) are its amazing public spaces. The law school’s central corridor, and particularly the intersection between that corridor and the school’s central staircase, gives the institution a space for structured yet informal social interaction that may be unmatched anywhere in higher education — except perhaps in Yale’s own dining halls. Has the decline in the number of law students who live in the Yale Law School has changed the law school dining hall dynamic? I’ve heard tales from older alums about a dinnertime dining hall ritual at Yale that seems quaint by modern standards: getting together every evening to watch Walter Cronkite.

    As for the meaning of the phrase “reputation economy,” take a look at Grant McCracken’s post today on Facebooking as persistent “status casting.” The exteriors of Yale’s buildings may be more material versions of the same thing: As the pursuit of knowledge moves forward, how does an institution signal its persistence at the top of the hierarchy? Build both buildings that recreate the very foundations of knowledge (Yalies can study the new neo-Gothic structure that houses the entrance to what used to be Cross Campus Library) and buildings that extend the limits of art (the Gwathmey History of Art building). Just as Facebook profiles offer us the ability to say “So and So is . . .” and as much as any American university can do this, Yale is offering the message that it *is* light and truth.

  2. Thanks, Mike.

    That Cathedral of Learning looks like an amazing building. Makes me want to visit just to take a look at it. The link led me on a extended Wikipedia tour of the neo-Gothic. I have to admit I’m not an architecture maven.

    Re: Walter Cronkite — not to sound like Cass Sunstein or Robert Putnam, but I’m a big fan of common areas and common topics. In a way, common ground was one of the best things about Yale — most people I knew had some amazing talent or aptitude that would eventually be the main focus of their life, but the residential colleges encouraged people not to define their social groups around that specialty.

  3. Very interesting reflections. I am beginning to worry a bit about the modeling of any of this as “economic,” and I think your reference to Acquisti on Herostratus is very helpful in that regard.

    I like going back to Michel Bauwens’ presentation at the conference, where he sharply questioned the idea of mixing economic and altruistic motives. He made some very good points about the ways in which a transactional point of view could undermine extant ecologies of commentary and knowledge-building on the web.

    One of the things I found most bizarre was the “scores” for “friendliness, coolness, karma” etc on Cyworld that Zittrain introduced. I suppose they are helpful to the extent that they, like a FICO score, may facilitate anonymous transactions. But I also worry a lot about the effort to quantify people’s good qualities (and bad….or, perhaps, to signify the bad by giving low scores on the good).

    On the other hand, I do like the way in which the Slate 60 does something to motivate philanthropy by exposing how much the most generous people give.

    Well, that’s a confused series of comments. But I suppose in the end it may be wise for us to reconcile ourselves to some modes of easily signaling status/morality other than creditworthiness. I’m reminded of the hegemony of economists in social science–it’s due in no small part to their mastery/mystification of measurement. To the extent we care about sparking competitions for virtue, perhaps we have to try to play the same game.

  4. Frank —

    I’m highly skeptical of *totalizing* economic accounts of reputation that are based on constructs of atomized actors rationally seeking to maximize their personal returns. Or perhaps I should say I’m wary, based on past trends, of how much weight might be accorded to such accounts in legal scholarship.

    Yet I think there’s a danger in Bauwen’s views of drawing sharp distinctions between pecuniary and reputation-based systems. Sometimes it can be profitable to identify political economies based on symbolic capital, social capital, or other forms of non-monetary capital. There’s a lot of insight along these lines in the recent book Rethinking Commodification. I’ve also enjoyed reading Viviana Zelizer’s writings on these topics.

    If I recall, Bauwen suggested that it would be important, if Web 2.0 enterprises were to succeed, to make sure that the pecuniary motivations were somehow secondary or tertiary to the production. That may be right as an analytical statement, but normatively it seems to endorse, potentially, business based on what Nick Carr has called digital sharecropping.

    W/r/t Cyworld, I’m going to be looking at that more closely before long, but my hunch is that these metrics are essentially a way of scoring points in a game. They have very similar metrics in the Sims Online and they’re intensively gamed. I would be surprised if they had much real weight for participants.

  5. A few new links somewhat on point for the issue of reputation economies:

    Google’s Knol — interesting to see how, if at all, this model will challenge Wikipedia. (Arguably, since Google generally controls how search operates on the Web, they can put a thumb on the scale — it will be interesting to see if they do.)

    Clive Thompson on Microcelebrity Perhaps the reputation economy means that people need to be their own publicists and deal with their own paparazzi.

  6. I love those last two links–thanks! Yes, the Clive Thompson piece reminds me of Robert Frank’s “Choosing the Right Pond”. . . .and Peter Gomes’ classic piece of graduation wisdom to the effect of “the biggest mistake I see people make in their lives is ceaselessly trying to have an influence on a grand scale while ignoring the small ways in which they can improve others’ lives.”

    As for Rethinking Commodification…and Zelizner….I’m trying to develope a critique of this new openness to commodification. My basic sense is that the authors are way too optimistic about the class dynamics involved in the transactions they describe. Or, to put it more sharply, is it really something to celebrate that the money given to the housecleaner is put in a special envelope? Or that there’s a well-developed etiquette that’s sprung up around sex tourism?

    Here’s one interesting take on the “spa economy” of New York:

    “When the manager gives her company his enthusiastic faith, when the airline stewardess gives her passengers her psyched-up but quasi-genuine reassuring warmth,” it’s what Arlie Hochschild labels “deep acting,” the ability to call up sincere, not merely theatrical, emotional states.

    In her more recent volume of essays, The Commercialization of Intimate Life, Hochschild explores what she calls “the intimate life in market times,” including the expansion of emotional labor within the household, such as that of migrant nannies and home-health-care aides. Salon work is distinct from these professions, which feature one-on-one relationships, built over time. But it has in common the necessity that a worker follow invisible “feeling rules,” even under duress.
    Jobs like this, she notes, “call on a whole range of new skills of how to relate to your clients. The new skill set is, ‘Oh, geez, how do I know when this is temporary and just a job from which I can feel alienated? When do I feel that this is a real person, and this is the real me talking?’ But what are we getting used to here? That is the real question.”

    At 67, Hochschild has noticed the way these treatments have gone from being “a luxury to a tentative necessity; it’s a redefinition of needs.” And she wonders aloud about what all this means. “Are we subtracting intimacy from other areas of life, in order to get it in this controlled and titrated, professionalized way?” asks Hochschild. “Is there a subtraction, as well as an addition? That would be the question I would ask. Are the women who go to salons just not getting it anywhere, in which case, they’re getting it here? I think we all need a kind of a connection, we need to be touched. But that we’re getting touched for money, in a medicalized, spiritualized way, seems to me something as a culture we could be thinking about. I don’t want to go the route of moralizing this; I think it’s good to be touched, to relax, to be stress free. But it does seem like a symptom that something’s amiss that people actually pay for this.”

    My question would be: does the intermixture of commercial and noncommercial motives raise similar questions in reputation economies as it does in these “economies of touch”? To give one provocative example: are we at all suspicious of, say, a scholar who only seems to cite or engage with people who work at institutions that scholar may someday want to work in? Or who are gatekeepers to prestigious presses or other opportunities?

  7. Frank — that *is* a provocative example. 🙂

    There’s certainly a lot to be said about this, so I don’t want to sound like I’m indifferent to it — I’m not and I think it should be pursued. But I guess I just want to note the obvious fact that the problem is a very old one. I imagine in the court of Hammurabi there were daily calls about how to negotiate between the pursuit of material rewards, true friendship, status, and virtue. E.g., the “spa economy” surely had a sort of precursor in the public baths of ancient Rome.

    I’m very sympathetic to your concerns about the way money and status can taint more idealized relationships. However, I don’t think empirically describing the lay of the land as being very complex — moving past the binary of commercial and non-commercial relationships — should be taken as an apology for what you identify as a type of corruption. You can still recognize and pursue the ideal form of social relationships while granting that, in practice, we fall short of that mark.

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