The Role (and Future) of Social Reputation

Online transactions, once relegated to leaps of faith, have evolved into our status quo. Before we break out our credit card numbers and make a purchase, we all engage in a ritual dance that somewhat resembles a fast-forwarded courtship.
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We find our homes on Craigslist, score our most treasured items with eBay, send gifts via Amazon, and order dinner through GrubHub. There's no denying it, we're all creatures of the Internet now. Online transactions, once relegated to leaps of faith, have evolved into our status quo. We no longer ask ourselves whether or not it's wise to buy online. Instead, we ask whether or not it's wise to deal with a particular person, service provider, or business.

Since I'm always looking for ways to generate even more trust in our community at TaskRabbit, I've been thinking an awful lot about social reputation lately. Pondering these kinds of things is a lot of fun for me, but also like second nature as I'm not just a small business owner, I'm also a consumer. I also buy things from Craigslist, eBay, Amazon, and GrubHub. I've got an inside view, just like you. As consumers, there are some basic things we want to know when deciding whether to transact with someone online -- social reputation features help us figure these things out.

Before we break out our credit card numbers and make a purchase, we all engage in a ritual dance that somewhat resembles a fast-forwarded courtship. We encounter a potential dance partner, an unknown suitor who may or may not be worthy of our trust. First, we try to figure out if this suitor is who they claim to be. We do this by reading snippets of biography, rotating through profile photos, and seeing how many Likes they have on Facebook. If we notice our friends are connected to them, we trust them a little bit more. If we notice they don't have a Twitter avatar, we trust them less. This part of the dance is steeped in semiotics -- we look for familiar signals and interpret meaning from there.

Our next move is to decide whether the suitor has a history of being trustworthy on the transaction site. Many sites include conventions like levels and star-ratings to inspire more trust. We devour these. We look at how the suitor interacts with customers on the site for further proof of trustworthiness. We make a quick study of the overall number of consumer reviews our suitor has, whether they're dominantly positive or negative, and how they compare to similar suitors. It's a dance so familiar and second nature, that most of us can perform it in a few seconds on our iPhones. But how can we improve upon it?

The next logical move in the dance is to evaluate how our potential partner behaves elsewhere. We can get a general feeling for this if we dig deep into their social profiles, but the trail gets pretty cold from there. In my last column, I discussed the idea of social reputation following a person from one online community to another. What if your great ratings on Amazon could follow you to Airbnb? What if a stellar eBay history gave you a running start on Yelp when you decide to open a brick-and-mortar shop?

Another fun thing to ponder is how social reputation systems might replace existing systems. A great example of a replacement that's already rapidly occurring is Yelp. Sure, traditional restaurant and business ratings and reviews still exist, but when's the last time you actually picked a local restaurant or service based on anything other than online consumer reviews? If Yelp's social reputation system can edge out expert reviews, imagine what else can be replaced. Imagine, for example, what happens if your online social reputation could replace your traditional resume. A recent survey revealed that 91% of polled HR pros use social networks to screen prospective employees already. At what point does the trust trail you're creating online eliminate the need for a CV? Here's another interesting thought: What if you could leverage your social reputation for those things that traditional credit scores are used for? Things like getting a credit card, buying a home, or renting a car at the airport? Some may argue that a long and robust history of great transactional behavior online is a much better indicator of future behavior than a few late payments to the cable company.

Whatever the future of social reputation online, I'm excited to dig in and help forge the path forward. Not only will embracing and enabling the growth of these reputation elements benefit my business, the consumer in me can barely control her excitement.

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