Your Reputation Will Be The Currency Of The Future

In The Nature Of The Future: Dispatches From The Socialstructed World, Marina Gorbis argues that as more and more of our activities are quantified online, your actions could become a new currency. But what happens if good behavior is commodified?

In The Nature Of The Future: Dispatches From The Socialstructed World, Marina Gorbis argues we are moving away from the depersonalized world of institutional production toward a new economy built on social connections and rewards—a process she calls socialstructing. Along with the exciting opportunities to create new kinds of social organizations—systems for producing not merely goods but also meaning, purpose, and greater good—there is a possibility that this form of creation will bring new challenges, new inequities, and new opportunities for abuse. We need to understand the potential disadvantages of socialstructing as well, if we are to minimize the potential pitfalls. The following is an excerpt from the book, available April 9.

In his novel Dead Souls, originally published in 1842, the celebrated Russian writer Nikolai Gogol paints the exploits of Chichikov, a man on the lower rungs of Russian society. Driven by a desire to enhance his social standing, Chichikov develops an ingenious scheme: He travels to Russian villages and buys the records of dead serfs. It’s a brilliant idea that capitalizes on a unique and grotesque feature of feudal Russian society: ownership by landlords of the people who live and work on their land.

The number of serfs, or "souls," one owns is a measure of one’s economic and social status. Landowners, in fact, pay taxes based on that number. The government keeps count of owned souls based on census numbers. Unfortunately the census takes place only infrequently, and many landowners end up paying taxes on their dead serfs. Grasping an opportune moment between the two censuses, Chichikov buys records of these dead souls from landowners eager to lighten their tax burden. Papers certifying Chichikov’s ownership of four hundred souls rapidly elevate his status: landed gentry open their homes to him, try to give away their daughters in marriage, and celebrate him at town functions. And all it took was a record of ownership of hundreds of souls.

With social connections, social standing, and social influence becoming new standards of value and something that we increasingly measure, we may end up creating many more Chichikovs. But instead of collecting records of dead souls, the modern day Chichikovs may be driven to acquire more followers on Twitter or friends on Facebook or otherwise hoard social connections for money, fame, or reputation.

The Rise of Social Currencies

As we embark on the large-scale enterprise of creating a new infrastructure for social currencies, it is important to remember that social currencies operate quite differently than money. Their purpose is to facilitate social flows that often operate not on market principles but on intrinsic motivations to belong, to be respected, or to gain emotional support. Once we start measuring such connections or such flows, we may purposefully or inadvertently take intrinsic value out of them, creating perverse motives and incentives. In fact, instead of turning market transactions into social flows, we might be turning social interactions into market commodities. In the words of sociologist Chase, we would be applying ontic measurements to ontological phenomena.

It is this possibility that we envisioned at the Institute for the Future in 2004, when my colleague Jason Tester created the "Reputation Statement of Account," an "artifact from the future," a plausible but imagined future object. At IFTF we often create such artifacts not as prototypes for building new products or services but as a way of converting abstract, high-level trends and future visions into tangible objects that help people internalize our forecasts. The "Reputation Statement of Account" that Tester designed remains one of my favorites; it perfectly encapsulates the idea of social currencies emerging as we reorganize our lives around social relationships.

The statement looks just like an American Express monthly statement, but instead of accounting for your monetary transactions, it tells you how much you’ve earned by contributing to sites such as Wikipedia or Flickr, how many points you’ve earned by providing rankings or ratings on various community sites, or how much social currency you’ve spent by asking someone for advice. Since then, several projects have sprung up that measure people’s online contributions and reputations.

Creating Your "Web Reputation"

The Whuffie Bank, for example, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to building a new currency based on reputation that can be redeemed for real and virtual products and services. The term whuffie was coined by Cory Doctorow, a science fiction writer, to denote a unit of reputation-based currency in his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. The Whuffie Bank issues whuffies based on a reputation algorithm that blends information from different social networks. It aims to build a platform that measures the online reputation of contributors on various sites. "As we develop and refine the algorithm that tracks public user activity over the net, the whuffie will become an accurate reflection of your web reputation," the site (currently offline) explains. "And as the Internet and social networks become a large part of people’s lives, your web influence will become an increasingly accurate reflection of you."

The newest and most striking incarnation of this idea can be found in an online game called Empire Avenue, which simulates a stock market in which shares in individuals can be traded and one can track individuals’ market value based on their following in various social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others, as well as demand for their shares by other players.

Commodifying social contributions—turning these into currencies that can be accumulated, hoarded, traded, and invested—may have unintended consequences. It could undermine precisely the kind of exchanges and volunteer contributions that are integral to the gift economies they are supposed to promote. In fact the word currency may be the wrong way to describe the incentives for facilitating flows inherent to social creation. The MetaCurrency Project coined the term current-see to emphasize the social flows of the exchanges it is trying to enable. Indeed, we need to invent new language and new terminology to describe the kinds of exchanges and values that comprise core elements of social production. This puts tremendous responsibility on people who design social platforms, because it is these design elements that will determine whether the platforms will foster gift exchange, competition, generosity, or new forms of greed.

We created social technologies. Our next task is to create social organizations: systems for creating not merely goods but also meaning, purpose, and greater good. Can we imagine a society of "private wealth holders whose main objective is to lead good lives, not to turn their wealth into capital?" asks political economist Robert Skidelsky. Or better yet, might they turn their wealth into a different kind of capital—social, emotional, or spiritual? Our technologies are giving us an unprecedented opportunity to do so.

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  • Mel Rom

    Great article and might I say, I
    too can relate to Steve Saenz's comments below. The thing about young people is
    that they haven't really (generalization) been taught the way the
    "50+" of today were taught. Our values are slightly different and the
    niceties of life, the common courtesy if you like seems to have disappeared.
     There is nothing new about emotional intelligence or social intelligence,
    it's appears to be new only because the younger generation hasn't grown up with
    this ingrained in their everyday existence.  As the online world hides
    nothing and retains everything forever, we must take our online reputation seriously and I
    guess it is a matter of marrying up ones online world with their offline world.
      Think about this concept taken from my 3 tier reputation framework, Mind-Heart-Voice™; if
    we think about what needs to be said with our mind, and then think about how we feel about what we are trying to achieve within our heart, then we are in a position to say it out loud through our voice, whether online or offline.  If we try this before anything we do, we won't have to worry about
    building a solid and respectful reputation, it will happen as a matter of

  • Rpomeranc

    Interesting...but ultimately, living with more integrity, making increasingly moral choices with ever greater awareness that take more of the whole into consideration is what makes or breaks any economy, system, platform, technology, etc...

  • Steve Saenz

    I love reading about the future and admire those who are brave enough to write about it. My initial reactionis that we should be a little careful about using bold headlines such as the one used in this article. One's reputation has always been extremely important in all aspects of life. In fact, it strikes me that it may have been even more important before the Digital Age when you had to get to know people by actually talking to other people who knew them. Whether reputation is or will be a "currency" or not, is probably a matter of semantics. An economist would probably take exception with the use of that word in this context.

    A person's "network" was also very valuable long before the advent of CRM's and social media. We used to call it a "Rolodex." Someone with a very large and prestigious network was said to have a "Golden Rolodex."

    If by currency you mean, "it will get you a (the) job" then you have no argument from me. I would just point out that the old adage, "it's not what you know, it's who you know" has been around since we were writing on caves.

    The older I get, the more I understand (and appreciate) the ancient proverb, "there is nothing new under the sun." Every day, I see articles, blog posts and webinars (mostly written or organized by young people) proclaiming or implying that they have come up with a breakthrough insight. In reality, most of them are ideas that have been around since before they were born. In some cases, they are simply recycling them knowingly. In others, I suspect they may really believe they have stumbled across a new or breakthrough idea.

    The latter may be a function of the sheer amount of information that is out there. Even if people did their research and due diligence before writing and posting, which they rarely do, they may not find anything that would lead them to believe enable them to know that their's was not a new idea after all.

    Another adage that comes to mind is, "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts." Unfortunately, that is something you won't really be able to understand until you're about 50, if you're lucky.

  • Guest

    Your thoughts are absolutely amazing. Tks for inspiring us :)
    Patrícia Weiss
    Chief Strategy Officer @ Wanted Transmedia Agency


  • Steven W. Giovinco

    Online reputation as the new currency is an interesting notion, and I think is starting to gain traction.

  • Selim (Shlomi)

    I loved the article. Coming from the Billing part of communication it was my dream to have a defined currency figure for stuff we all share, therefore, I created adMingle.com democratizing the social economy. The main page can be found in www.admingle.com and not available in your own country for example www.admingle.co.uk , admingle.fr, admingle.it and so on. Check your country and join our movement in changing the way we do Internet! Feel free to contact me directly shlomi@admingle.com I am an e-mail away, best, Selim Shlomi Benbasat, adMingle CEO and Founder

  • Nicola07

    You ask "Can we imagine a society where we turn wealth into a different kind of capital - social, emotional or spiritual?" I see examples of this being done everyday with holistic health practitioners (yoga instructors, coaches, nutritionalists) turning their passions into dollars through building communities based on values then monetizing it through the products and services they offer. It's the savvy entrepreneur that embraces this new economic way of living and connecting.  

  • nd1027

    Tad bit ridiculous seeing as we are still a society that relies extremely on consumption - which requires production - which requires specialized skills. That is where real value is created.

  • Harbhajan Singh

    There are non-human forces - also called four basic forces of the universe which fundamentally drive all change. Until these are also taken into account in some way all future predicting is like running in the dark: http://selfdesigneduniverse.bl...