Digital Reputation

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Allison Hearn [1]:

The rise of digital reputation via web 2.0

"Many who celebrate the rise of social media see it as facilitating a wholesale change in social relations, and, indeed, in the nature of capitalism (for example Benkler, 2006 and Bauwens, 2005), confirming the centrality of socialized production, social capital, and immaterial labour. Add to this the rise of a culture of public intimacy, where the public display and mediation of personal emotion and affect is clearly linked to monetary value (in reality television, for example) and we see the emergence of something Adam Arvidsson and Nicolai Peitersen have termed ‘the General Sentiment’ (Arvidsson and Peitersen, 2009). Just as Marx argued that the General Intellect, the cumulative knowledge of all individual workers, would become a direct component of capitalist production, Arvidsson and Peitersen contend that alongside this, ‘some form of public affect, like reputation’ is emerging as a new ‘standard of value’. Value comes increasingly to depend on ‘the ability of an object to act as a catalyst for flows of public affect’ (Arvidsson and Peitersen, 2009: 8-9).

While prior to the digital age it was impossible to fully know the extent of our social relationships and connections or the impact of the social web we had woven, nowadays, social media like Twitter or Facebook provide a new ‘protocol’ for social relations; they allow individuals’ personal connections to become more durable, representable, ever-expandable, and, most importantly, they render public their affective qualities (Arvidsson and Peitersen, 2009: 17). Not only can we see the numbers of relationships a person has, but we can assess their quality and conduct as well; ‘(t)his means that what used to be private or “intimate” information is now becoming a public parameter that can, and is, deployed in evaluating the overall social worth of a person or organization’ (Arvidsson and Peitersen, 2009: 18). With the emergence of publicly available information about a person’s affective bonds, we get a sense of their total social impact, an amalgam of their digital activity, which can then be measured, rationalized, and represented as their ‘digital reputation’.

Canadian marketing consultant, Tara Hunt, calls this total social impact ‘Whuffie’ – a term drawn from a currency imagined by sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow in his book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Doctorow imagines a post-capitalist world of abundance, where individuals collect Whuffie by making positive affective investments in their communities. Hunt uses the term interchangeably with ‘social capital’ and declares that it is displacing money and becoming an indispensable new form of online currency. In this age of reputational transparency, companies must expand their social networks and cultivate meaningful quality relationships with the people in those networks. They can do this, according to Hunt, by going above and beyond their profit-driven mission and finding a ‘high end’, authentic, commitment to community (Hunt, 2009). Borrowing from Arvidsson and Peitersen, we might argue that corporations generate Whuffie, by ‘offering an ethical surplus to the polis’ (Arvidsson and Peitersen, 2009: 20), enriching the General Sentiment by making public affective investments in their communities.

Of course, corporate social responsibility offices around the globe have long recognized the value of making calculated investments of public affect in social causes and the link between these investments and concrete financial returns. The perpetual interactivity and transparency of social network sites seem to raise the stakes in these ventures however because, through them, interested parties can easily police corporate commitments. Does individual participation in online rankings and feedback systems simply reflect public sentiment, which can then collectively press toward generating ethical and socially responsible behaviour on the part of corporations and businesses? Is the dream of a true transparency between personal or corporate internal motivation and public self-presentation, named by Braudy, finally becoming possible?

Online feeling measurement and management systems

In order to begin to answer these questions, we must first examine who directs the flows of affective investment into concrete forms of social capital, or digital reputation, and what mechanisms are being deployed to solicit, aggregate, and represent these investments. Who determines what constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘valuable’ reputation and whose contributions and interests are, both, appropriated and erased in the process?

As of 2008, over 32% of Internet issuers had provided a rating, and over 30% had posted an extended online comment about a product, service or person (Pang and Lee, 2008: 1). Clearly the drive to speak ‘from the centre of the self’ in the form of personal opinion is a strong one. This speech does not remain personally expressive for long, however; it only becomes valuable once it has been aggregated, represented and put to work. A plethora of different sites and services exist to fulfill these tasks.

To begin, feedback mechanisms shape individual sentiment even before it is expressed through the ‘proper engineering of the information systems that mediate online feedback communities’ (Dellarocas, 2003: 1410). These automated ratings mechanisms, the first and most famous being ebay’s rating system for buyers and sellers, are what Chrysanthos Dellarocas has called ‘the digitization of word of mouth’ and have proliferated throughout the world of ecommerce, working as ‘a viable mechanism for fostering cooperation among strangers’ (Dellarocas, 2003: 1407). The assumed transparency enabled by these systems, Dellacrocas argues, creates incentive for good behaviour on the part of businesses and a modicum of stability in what would otherwise by a very risky trading environment. Automated feedback mediators delimit who can participate, what kinds of information they can contribute, and in what format it is represented to others. They can also control for a number of feedback parameters that would be impossible to control in real world settings. Like the numeric best-seller list, or the brand equity algorithms, in these processes detail, nuance and context are reduced to simple summary statistics, transforming what ‘used to be a sociological or ethical problem, how to get a community to function, into an engineering problem’ (Arvidsson and Peitersen, 2009: 25).

Once these feedback and ratings mechanisms are in place, sites such as ivillage, Buzzillions, Tripadvisor, or Urbanspoon deploy them to solicit consumer feedback for products and services. Generic consumer sites like or have also emerged exhorting consumers to express their feelings on a wide variety of services, goods and topics. But, often unbeknownst to the participant opinion-expressing consumers, these companies also partner with corporations and serve as ‘knowledge brokers’ or ‘innomediaries’ (Sawhney, Prandelli and Verona, 2003: 77). So, as these sites operate under the guise of serving consumers’ interests by providing a place for the free expression of consumer opinion and feeling, their corporate clients are able to access these suggestions, using them to grow brand equity and develop products. According to Scott Armstrong of the marketing firm BrainRider, this practice is a part of the increasingly sophisticated world of business marketing online, one that sees social networking as a tactic to attract consumers and consumer feedback as an easy route to free knowledge resources. These resources can be mined for value and social connections with consumers can be actively cultivated in order to ‘sell the invisible’.[2] The invisible, according to marketing guru Harry Beckwith, is, first and foremost, constituted by the client’s feelings about the quality of their relationship with a business – in other words its reputation; manufacturing this intangible product is the marketer’s most important job (Beckwith, 1997: 51).

Other online services that actively track, broker, aggregate consumer feedback and transform this feedback into value for corporate clients have also emerged in recent years. Companies such as Sysomos, Radian6 or Bazaarvoice are ‘listening platforms’, trolling the web in order to offer ‘real time intelligence’ about the reputation of their clients’ product, brand or service. They also help clients identify key influencers and viral marketers and effectively ‘participate’ (read intervene) in consumer conversations, promising to help ‘your customers build your business’.[3]

The intelligence collected by these companies is measured through the use of several ‘out of the box’ metrics, such as webcrawlers, key word searches, and brand mentions. As Radian6’s Vice President of Social Strategy, Amber Naslund, describes, these metrics provide both quantitative measures in the form of ‘share of voice’ or volume of mentions, such as the total number of twitters about a brand or service, and qualitative metrics or ‘share of the conversation’, which attempt to determine whether ‘they are the right conversations with the right people’.[4] The intelligence, once collected, is subjected to various forms of analysis, the most common being sentiment analysis.

Facebook, Twitter, and other ‘sentiment-aware applications’ (Pang and Lee, 2008: 1) have challenged opinion miners to move beyond the mere number of mentions as expressions of what people think to the analysis of the content of those mentions. Sentiment analysis is based in linguistic analysis and begins by parsing ‘mentions’ into polarities, or positive and negative values. It then subjects the mentions to several other filters, such as the degree of emotional intensity indicated by the use of adjectives and lexical cohesion, and subjectivity, which measures the partiality or impartiality of the source of the utterance by examining the semantic construction of the mention, other topics raised in it, and the extremity of the position expressed in relation to other mentions (Pang and Lee, 2008: 58-86). Sentiment analysis is just one mode of analysis offered by companies like Radian6, however. According to Naslund, many businesses perceive pervasive negative conversations about their brand that shift and move across the Internet as the greatest threat to business. Locating the sites where the important conversations are happening and intervening successfully in them, then, is also crucial to useful intelligence analysis.

As Naslund claims, ‘reputation management is one of the chief focus areas for most of the social media world, and will be for many years to come’. So, once the intelligence is gathered and analyzed, services like Radian6 offer guidance to clients about how best to intervene in, and manage, the conversations and opinions being expressed online. A client of Radian6, for example, is encouraged to enter broader fields of discussion and feedback online, participating in conversations that ‘matter to your customers and communities’ in order to shape and take charge of the conversations being had ‘in and around your brand’. The goal is to foster a community of loyal consumers that will endure ‘in between the points of sale’.[5] Tactics may involve participating in chat room conversations, and identifying influencers, viral marketers, or brand fans. In this age of social media, then, the goal of online marketing involves far more than finding and targeting a specific consumer, but in ‘fostering a community’ of influencers and brand advocates from amongst already existing consumers and deploying them to do the work of brand enhancement for free.

Other online services are more involved in directly constructing and/or managing online reputation. Sites, such as, offer a monthly assessment of an individual or corporate online reputation and provide a service that will control and manipulate information that might appear about a client in order to create only a ‘positive’ reputational profile. Sites such as TrustPlus provide a reputation score for any person, product or service provider on the web for a fee. As Trent Cruz has noted, Canadian internet start-up Empire Avenue is a kind of reputational stock exchange, where companies and individuals can track their influence and invest in the potential influence of others. For example, I invest in you based on the degree to which you actively participate in online social media sites; your social capital could pay me dividends. Empire Avenue offers a mechanism whereby an individual can earn online currency for making the right investments in other people’s influence or by maximizing their own share price. This is accomplished by extending their social network, posting regularly on Twitter and offering comments, ratings, and feedback wherever possible – in other words, by actively developing a ‘self-brand’. But, as Cruz wryly notes, one’s own share price is also heavily conditioned by the degree to which one invests in others: ‘many users still seem to adhere to an Internet ethos of reciprocity rather than cold market logic. “If you buy me I’ll buy you” continues to be a common investment strategy’ (Cruz, 2010). The online currency offered on Empire Avenue, called ‘eaves’, is not yet translatable into real dollars, although plans are in the works to make this happen. The eventual goal for the site’s developers, however, is to sell the data about personal influence accumulated on the site to advertisers so that they might begin to determine and generate customizable advertising rates.

Numerous other forms of reputational meta-measurement services have arisen to provide corporations and advertisers with information about their ‘Whuffie’. Neilsen’s buzzmetrics promises to troll ‘nearly 100 million blogs, social networks, groups, boards and other CGM platforms’. Tweetbeep will email you as often as every 15 minutes every time someone tweets your search terms., owned by twitter, promises to identify top ‘influencers’ of different topics trending online and offers to provide you with your own ‘klout score’ based on your aggregated internet activity. Summize will let you know, at any given time, what topics or issues are trending on Twitter or other social media sites. Facebook’s Lexicon counts occurrences of phrases on people’s walls over time. Quantcast tracks the demographics of searchers for a specific key word, so that data about an online audience is available whenever you need it. And, of course, Google will soon provide a ranking of rankings: a master list of the most influential people with the best reputations on social network sites (Green, 2008).

Structuring feeling and digital reputation

As we have seen, affective investment online has given rise to a plethora of new services that, like brand equity measurement systems, promise to translate individuals’ lived ideas and feelings into quantifiable value for the market. This promise is predicated on lofty ideas about the power of authentic free expression from the ‘center of the self’ and the possibilities of a profitable self brand. But, as the variety of examples outlined above illustrate, the view of a market comprised of open and genuine affective investments that will eventually produce ethical behaviour breaks down almost immediately. Indeed, the rhetoric of an online reputation economy deploys several mystifying assumptions. First, it suggests that individual affect arrives on the scene in some kind of pure state, untouched by already existing class, gender, race and other social relations and is only ever motivated by an honest desire to do good. Second, it insists that the acquisition of a reputation by rating and feeding back is a simple and transparent process reflecting the ‘inherent value’ of honest expression. And finally, it suggests that a digital reputation will eventually ‘pay off’ for its holder as a value in and for itself. But, can these various representations of reputation be read as ‘true’ measures of individual affect as some critics contend?

Arguments for the emergence of an ethical ‘public sentiment’ as a result of social media seem to suggest that opinion and word of mouth flow in an unfettered and transparent way from isolated individuals at their keyboards through the forms of aggregation and representation described above. But, if this is so, why does research repeatedly show that, when ranking and rating everything from youtube videos to hotels, individuals routinely give positive reviews? A study of ebay ratings provided by buyers from 2002 notes that over 99% of ratings of sellers were positive and only 0.6% were negative. Indeed, as of 2009, the average rating for anything online was 4.3 out of 5 (Fowler and De Avila, 2009). Given that reputation is an extremely contingent and changeable attribute, conditioned by its institutional and cultural setting and broad-based cultural assumptions about social value, the overwhelming positive reputation of everything digital might be read in any number of ways: as a function of the technological imperative – representing the thrill derived from the sheer novelty of the act of feeding back, or, as the result of the legislated, smiley-faced, outer-directed cultural ethos of the contemporary work world, or, perhaps, as with Empire Avenue, the result of a market-driven ethos of quid-pro-quo; if I rate you high and you might do the same for me. But, given the processes and services reviewed above, it is likely the combined result of reputation measurement and management systems working to bolster the interests of their corporate employers.

Arguably, reputation as the aggregation of attention has always mattered, even while the mechanisms for its generation have changed and intensified in recent years. It is the question of how it matters, of what the mechanisms are through which reputation is measured and rendered productive for capital that are the real issues here. As we have seen, the services outlined above are places where human sociality is subjected to measurement for the market, and, as such, they are ground zero for what David Harvie and Massimo de Angelis have termed ‘the war over measure’; ‘the daily struggle over the whats, hows, how muches, whys and whos of social production’. This struggle occurs wherever we see capital attempting to extract value from the self-valorizing practices of individuals (de Angelis and Harvie, 2006: 11).

Following from this, we could argue that the affective expressions and investments of individuals online constitute a kind of ‘free labour’. As Tiziana Terranova describes, free labour online involves an ‘immanent process of channeling collective labour into monetary flows and its structuration with capitalist business practices’ (Terranova, 2000: 38) and can include activities as diverse as designing software, posting youtube videos, creating Facebook profiles and of course, ranking and feeding back. It is voluntary activity whose affective qualities are colonized for value by capitalist interests. And, just as women’s work in the home contributes directly to capitalist accumulation but is also ‘not counted’ in formal economic analysis, the new online economy is entirely under-girded by free labour, even as dominant discourses work to cloak its existence under the rubric of ‘authentic expression’ and ‘personal empowerment’. Arguably, the promise attached to the achievement of a valuable personal digital reputation distracts individuals from the fact that businesses have effectively outsourced the work of product innovation, promotion and marketing onto them while simultaneously disciplining self-presentation and affective relations in ways congruent with capital’s long-term interests. As Terranova (2000: 43) argues, ‘affective production on the Net… does not exist as a free-floating post-industrial utopia but in full, mutually constituting interaction with late capitalism’.

Under the ideology of neo-liberal entrepreneurial individualism, we are repeatedly told our opinions matter, but to whom and to what end? The ranking activities constantly being solicited from us contribute to value generation, although not for the person doing the ranking and feeding back in any direct way. For example, youtube stars are perpetually peppering their presentations with exhortations to viewers to rate, feedback or subscribe because more feedback and subscriptions equal more remuneration from youtube; here rating and providing feedback add value to a product entirely out of the rater’s control. Even when we track our own Whuffie or constitute ourselves as super-Facebookers, as illustrated in Empire Avenue, the reputation we generate is simply a reputation for building the reputation of others, resulting in a seemingly endless circuit of exchange without foundation.

The claim that the interactive feedback represented in measured forms of ‘reputation’ will inevitably produce socially ethical behaviour seems far-fetched in a world where market logics and values remain dominant and cynical forms of self-production prevail. Individuals generally craft reputation via the self-brand because they hope this work will eventually find its realization in the general equivalent – money; the celebrity industry works ideologically to valorize this hope. And, as the cursory look through the role of feeling-intermediaries above has shown, even where the motivation is the social good, the result remains monetary accumulation. As reputation seekers in the reputational economy, we may be nodes in the new distributed means of production as producer, product and consumer, but we do not even begin to control the means of our own distribution.

Insofar as measurement systems constitute that which they measure, when we rank, rate or feedback, we are not only finding ourselves in the list, we are giving ourselves up to it. And here, finally, we might find a link between these speculative comments about the ‘free labour’ of digital reputation building and the working conditions that prevail in the material world. The embrace of ranking, ratings and lists and the dream of a reputation economy serve an ideological and promotional function, re-inscribing ideas about the objectivity and freedom of markets and capitalism more generally; they reduce us to what Neil Postman calls a ‘calculable’ person, ‘one who knows his or her value as calculated by an external, refereed source’ (Postman cited in Hakanen, 2002: 247). If that source is the General Sentiment, as Arvidson and Pietersen would have us believe, it is a highly conditioned, over-determined ‘sentiment’ at that – one that bears the scars of the legislated affective displays that are required from all of us smiley virtuosos these days. Could it be that the pursuit of digital reputation serves a compensatory function for all of those ways in which we are disempowered as workers in the real world?

In reaction to material social conditions, we see the emergence of a structure of feeling (in Williams’ sense) characterized by an anxious need to talk back, weigh in and be seen. These expressions are then distilled, aggregated, and monetized by the online measurement systems described above. Here, self-expression may not comprise ‘labour’, strictly speaking, but it does constitute a free source of large profits. And, as feeling-intermediaries structure feelings into profits for themselves and their clients, a valuable personal digital reputation will likely never materialize for most people; instead, there will be only an escalating, unrelenting barrage of promotional edicts and appeals. After all is said and done, then, it could well be that the online reputation economy is just a chimera, whose pursuit constitutes yet another instance of what Paolo Virno has called the ‘stubborn personalization of subjugation’ (Virno 1996, 195)."