number games, reputation economies, and Aristotle (of all people)

Danah Boyd posts on Many-to-Many about the “number games” that often drive online participation. As she and the commenters on her post point out, one’s numerical identity whether it be a character’s level in Worlds of Warcraft or number of MySpace friends or hits on a blog or rating on eBay or whatever, surely drives participation in a number of Social Software situations.

One of those commenters references research done in online gaming, where Richard Bartle identified four gamer types: Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, and Killers. As I understand it, the Achiever-type is quite common and would be characterized by the desire to achieve new levels or a higher reputation, numerically represented. The way we regularly talk about this is in terms of a “reputation economy.” There’s an interesting article in First Monday on the uses and abuses of recommendation systems (e.g. Amazon) for the purpose of raising one’s reputation. Again, I’m not familiar with Bartle, but it strikes me there’s some connection there.

That said, it strikes me that we are seeing a twisting of reputation economies in the development of numerical evaluation systems. Reputation economies are gift economies, where the idea is that what is offered (in the case of Social Software, information) is given freely. Gifts imply some obligation on the part of the receiver, of course, but it is not a fungible exchange; it can even be a case of “paying it foward” so to speak. However, the inclusion of a numerical system effectively commodifies the exchange. One can see this fictionalized in Bruce Sterling’s Distraction were characters in reputation economies rise through the ranks and then can essentially spend their reputation (with the result that they get demoted). Google transforms the entire web into a kind of reputation economy, where the gift of putting a link on your website increases the linked sites visibility. Clearly this is a numerical reputation which is regularly commodified and sold.

I suppose I could critique this commodification, but I want to set that aside for a moment. Instead I want to look at this as a classically rhetorical concept, ethos. From this perspective, the primary problem of numerical reputations is that they undermine the ethos of the giver. When one writes an evaluation on Amazon, does one write honestly or write to improve reputation? It is not a problem that can be resolved but rather a question of rhetorical evaluation that must be folded into one’s reading.

Certainly this is at stake in academic communities, which is clearly a reputation economy. I don’t mean to suggest that academics lie or plagiarize or falsify results to try to improve their reputations (though all those things do happen sometimes). Instead, I’m thinking more subtlely about the motivations for publication. I need to publish to get tenured, to get a raise or promoted, and/or to gain some notoriety in my field (which might lead to a better job down the line). Are such rewards an appropriate motive for research? Clearly we seem to think so, because we make such connections quite transparent. And I’m not complaining about that. Honestly, I’m not. However, I can’t help thinking about that when I read an article. I think, this is the thing someone wrote to get tenure or whatever. And I’m sure it would be the rare article where that is the sole motivation, but one would be foolish to think this concern wasn’t at play. Obviously the same is the case with any other writing in the marketplace: there is always a commodifiable goal.

Anyway, I digress. Boyd’s point is about the desire for a great reputation driving participation in Social Software. I have circled around to suggest that when reputations become commodified in some numerical representation (e.g., a Top 100 Reviewer on Amazon or characters or items in a MMORG you can sell on eBay or eBay Seller reputations for that matter) they are ripe for cashing in. And when that potential hangs there, one must carefully consider the ethos of the gift you are about to receive.

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