September 6, 2007
There was a recent New York Times article that covered a relatively new company called Rapleaf that aggregates publicly available and privately submitted data about individuals, mostly from social networks, and then resells that data in bulk to marketers to help them target advertising more effectively, supposedly to names they already have permission to mail. I’m sure the company would think I butchered that description, but it’s close, anyway.
While there are a lot of comments and posts flying around about the ethics of that data collection, I won’t focus on that here. Publicly available data is publicly available data. This isn’t a lot different than banks swapping your data to create a FICO score, Abacus swapping your purchase data to cataloggers, or InfoUSA compiling tax and DMV records.
What I think is interesting is the notion of having a global online personal reputation, which, despite Rapleaf’s verbiage, isn’t exactly what they’re doing at scale just yet. I have often wondered if such a thing would work, especially since Return Path has gotten big into the corporate reputation business through our Sender Score service that monitors companies’ email sending reputations.
Here’s why I think it’s a good idea: the world of peer production and user generated content means that everyone can publish any media at any time. As a result, the amount of content that’s available out there has exploded to unmanageable proportions. Lots of sites are and have been working on making it easier to find and discover stuff. That’s a good start. But how are we going to start figuring out what things we want to consume and who to trust when even the most efficient search and discovery mechanisms produce too many options? Think about it like this — you’d never buy something on eBay from someone who had a crappy seller reputation as noted by other eBay buyers who had bought things from the same seller. Would you watch a random YouTube video (even if you liked the subject) if the producer had a horrible rating? Would you bother trying to get into that person’s blog? Would you allow someone to introduce that person to you via LinkedIn?
Here’s why I think it will be difficult to make it work: I’m not convinced that there is such a thing as an accurate universal measure of someone’s reputation. Yes, you CAN certainly aggregate a lot of information about people from publicly available sources online. And many of those sources do have data that point to someone’s reputation. But do they translate well across sources and dimensions? To go back to the prior example, if a person has a bad reputation as a seller on eBay…does that mean I don’t want to read his blog? Or just that I don’t want to buy stuff from him sight unseen? He might be a marvelous writer but a thief. Or maybe he has a great credit score but is lousy at follow up. Also, the notion that someone can lobby for and garner a whole slew of private recommendations from friends on the system, while a nice idea to complement and correct inaccuracies of public data, feels like a system ripe for gaming.
Anyway, it’s an interesting concept, and I look forward to seeing how it unfolds.