In 2018, I wrote an article for Token Daily on the web's reputation systems. Three years later, we've hit many of the milestones. Below is an update to the original version that includes some recent advancements.
Reputation, on the Internet, has been warped. We’ve built an information system that rewards recency and relevancy mechanics, with an aim more towards discoverability than integrity. It has become a competition to generate results for result’s sake. We’ve strayed away from the efforts that make something truly reputable and instead over-indexed on the end result, generalizing how we value information on the web today. It doesn’t matter what you put into it as long as what comes out matches the criteria for success. And that’s wrong.
There’s a very simple reason for this behavior: we don’t know what the systems to derive reputation look like on a global scale. It’s not quantifiable, and at a baseline isn’t a definition that is mutually agreed upon by all. Filtering this much content on the web, even in groups powered by large computing systems, is too influenced by outside sociological and political pressures. This filtering pushes towards filter bubbles and separates in an effort to integrate. Not to mention, outside incentives are hindering our ability to deliver anything of absolute true value.
To create stronger reputation signals in this newest iteration of the web, we’re going to need to build off of the benefits of the previous versions of the web and leverage the coordination abilities that come from an uncensorable, highly available, and ubiquitous database. We need to align technology with the ethics and value we as a society hold dear. This, of course, leads us to a blockchain powered by an incentive system that rewards participation and holds accountability through immutability.
So let’s start from the beginning.
In the first attempt to build out the web, we didn’t have a set way to determine and identify what was reputable or established. The web itself was in its infancy and wasn’t structured to maintain the responsibility it eventually held as becoming the technical system for society. What we found out very quickly was that this system enabled all humans to express themselves freely and openly in a way that not only made them unique, but made them connected to the rest of the world. The web became a society of information.
Directories were the first way to sort all of this information through some reasonably well-defined hierarchy. We started grouping websites together as “web rings” to trade traffic with one another; once you identified a good site, you could expect similar quality from the other participants within the ring. Search engines built giant computing engines in order to index all of the information, created the first filtering algorithms, and made it easy to actively find things we expressed intent on learning about based on how many times the content was referenced on other websites.
Participating in the first web was open and democratized, but there was some significant issues. Filtering all of that information in a way to help quality content surface to the top was extremely problematic. Search engine optimization (SEO) became a game that had extremely high rewards for those who could land themselves in the top results for high volume keywords. To become good at finding the results that mattered to you, you had to learn boolean algebra. Collecting and crawling all of the websites as the primary way to capture information can leave some content behind. If the author wasn’t well-versed at the black magic that is SEO, there’s a chance that their content might not be indexed correctly which could create an artificial censorship. Of course, some of the companies that built search engines aren’t even allowed to serve results in certain countries which has created a very real censorship issue. Searching is a very active process and doesn’t help us passively find content that might be relevant to our needs. Directories did a good job at categorizing content to ”surf through”, but that still took hours of work sometimes to find what you were looking for if you weren’t exactly sure on how to describe it.
Web 1.0 didn’t create a strong way to expose reputable content, but it completely democratized content creation, distribution, and monetization. For a first attempt, we made something that forever impacted how every human in the world receives information. The next leap was distribution.
Web 2.0 was all about your content living where the users were. We developed these new platforms with engagements such as likes, retweets, and upvotes as the next way to build reputation signals for content. Each action created a public signal that could be used to help personalize content that could now be delivered to users on the platforms passively because we knew what was popular within each other’s social groups without requiring intent to give meaningful results.
Platforms from Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter accelerated the standardization of making an Application Programing Interfaces (APIs) available which created a more distributed way to access content instead of relying on search and created massive ecosystems of developers expanding their reach. However, your content would no longer just live on your website or blog, but it now had to be modified to fit the platforms in which it was hosted on. As of July 2018, there are at least 20 social platforms with more than 200 million users. For someone tasked with delivering information, it was critical understand how information moved and how best to deliver it across technical borders. Each platform had a separate algorithm and list of “success” criteria, creating far more complexity than SEO.
The goal was to strike up relevant conversations and share interesting topics with each other, but instead we all became acutely aware of how our actions represented our reputation, honesty and accountability. Although we had more ways to access content than we ever had with completely centralized platforms, we concentrated effort towards a handful of platforms that had mastered distribution which [something] power again to a small handful of platforms. The products weren’t just the platforms anymore; the products had become the publishers and the source for reputation on the web. Naturally, most users started manipulating the algorithms to paint the picture they wanted seen, not what was really happening or was important. We started valuing our efforts by quantifying it in the likes, retweets and comments our content captured and again gaming the underlying systems that powered reputation.
Web 2.0 gave us a whole new lens to start looking at content through and our relationships between each other became an integral part of how we consumed information. No longer did we have to seek out information, but instead we created an issue where we had too much coming at us at all times. We trusted our friends, but not the sources our friends used, which created a significant difficulty in determining the reputation of content. Social signals didn’t tell the whole truth about the reputation of content, but did again provided a profound new way to connect all of the people on earth.
Misinformation is more present and accessible than ever, and “truth” and “trust” are no longer objective in the eyes of all consumers. This is where we need to play in what I call “the gray”. How can we build a system that is impartial, not necessarily pushing people towards a black or white but rather exposing information in the gray? To do that, we need a decentralized record of information and an incentive system to build towards a common goal for the network, by the network. The next wave of the web is truly about reputation, and not only what is recent and relevant.
The next web of reputation systems is starting to develop and all signs point to blockchain technologies being the foundation. We are now able to deliver information that’s easily curated but uncensorable. We’re working with data sets and information that is ubiquitous but not overwhelming. The bridge to this web is connecting content with accountability through immutability and reputation. This participation and ownership will push towards a new culture, and not succumb to the vanity that unearthed in the distribution phase. We’re making the web free again.
Together, we’re building the foundation for a verifiable web, a place where we can construct the next generation of technologies that highlight the value of the individual. This is what makes reputation in this era different; it’s about the individual, the efforts that go into a given action and integrating systems to measure that. It’s not about the platforms where information is distributed or the channels where it is found, it is about the individual sender and the value tied to their efforts.
Because of this, the next chapter of reputation will flip from “reputation of platform and publisher” to “reputation of individual.” The source of reputation is no longer with the platform where the creator resides but tethered to the creator itself. Consumers, observers and owners are becoming more creator specific; there is less trust in the platforms and distribution mechanisms and more on the messengers that deliver. Through decentralization, we’re able to build systems that enable these messengers to separate dependency from platforms for audience, revenue and growth. It opens a new economy where reputation is aligned directly with the creator.
Currently, there have been platforms that enable coordination and allocation of intrinsic or extrinsic “capital” to achieve shared goal. With blockchain-based networks, we want to incentivize participants towards some predictable outcome that is beneficial for every network participant. It’s not just about the group, but also about the network participant themself.
What’s most exciting about this next era of permissionless innovation is that it’s not longer dependent on a central authority. It’s not dependent on host, network, publisher or platform. This era of reputation is not built and dictated by a set standard of link share clubs or opaque algorithms. It’s adjustable, adaptable, managed and maintained by your preferences. We no longer need to be strictly driven by how a single platform categorizes, aggregates, and rewards. We can rely on each other to index this information now in a way that benefits all of the participants.
It is important that we understand the values of this new era of permissionless systems as they pertain to the individual. The biggest value that this brings, and what separates it from prior mechanics in democratized and distributed systems is the opportunity of interoperability. This new era means that all the work someone puts within a single network can now be collected and used beyond that network. Interoperable reputation in the decentralized era is the freedom to leverage what you’ve built beyond restrictive borders. As an example, let’s look at the media landscape:
In media, the main driver for revenue is both subscriptions and advertising. These two means fund the growth of media on the web and are platform specific. That means, when someone subscribes or advertises to something, they do so on the platform rather than the individual. The platform holds the reputation, and the individual leverages the platform to build their own audience and value. An example is the writer relationship to the Washington Post, the photographer’s relationship to Getty Images or a musicians relationship to Spotify. There are many. These reputation based systems are prominent in democratized and distributed eras but begin to fail in the decentralized phase. This is a good thing. Here’s how it works:
The current: The value and ways of driving revenue for creators through advertising and subscriptions are currently platform specific, even though they are all driven by wanting to own a message directly. The reputation is tied to the platform as dictated by the democratized and distributed web. In this era of reputation (decentralized) this balance shifts.
The shift: The creator’s reputation is now the value. It's no longer about advertising or transacting with the NYT or Spotify or Getty directly. It’s about transacting with that creator wherever that creator is. This is doable now because reputation is aligned with the individual itself.
The result: a monolithic shift in the opportunity for creators and the restraints of the companies that are currently working as hard as possible to best represent them. It’s no longer a forfeiture of reputation to centralized systems, it’s taking ownership and allowance of your own value, your own reputation. In this case, the reputation is now on the individual, not the platform or the grantor; you, and your work are what is reputable and that carries throughout the entire web ecosystem, regardless of the platform it lives on.
This shift towards individuality as a driver of reputation in the decentralized era is exactly what will drive everyone towards a better web. Each stage has shown a both progress and digress in where we aim to go and how far we still have to go to get there. With this next step towards reputation, individuals are now empowered by the commitment to the openness of ecosystem and the network of builders, verifiers and maintainers of a healthy and newfound ecosystem. There will no doubt be short falls, but investing in building networks that account for interoperability, freedom and openness move us closer to a web where we can find better information, better knowledge and better trust. This is the future of a reputable web. The web of the individual.