Thursday, March 7, 2013

Why online reputation needs to be portable

Last week I quit my job at Connect.Me, where we tried to build a social reputation network. There were many ideas about what could become of it, but the one that made the most sense to me was portable reputation: if I've got 4.95 stars as a SideCar driver, I would like to somehow apply those stars to my Airbnb profile.

Monday night we had a completely nightmarish Airbnb experience, which prompted me to write this post.

We Airbnb a studio on the first floor of our house to make the house give something back after taking so much, and we've been doing really well in terms of reviews and bookings. It also feels amazing to have a business, sort of. So Monday night I was driving home from Palo Alto when our guest called to inform me that their two laptops, an iPod, and an address book were gone.

As my readers know, we live in a pretty rough part of town (not really, anymore). Just a few years ago  in 2006, 2007, 2008  I expected to hear gunshots at night. I think I almost got used to it! Bam, bam, bam  whatever. Also, of course, plenty, plenty of muggings.

But burglaries? Unheard of.

There were no signs of forcible entry at the studio. Everything was neat, nothing ransacked. Expensive bikes and thousands of dollars worth of tools were left untouched. The way it happened, I think, is someone walked up to our gate, took out a key, opened it, walked to the studio, took out a key, opened it, collected the laptops, locked the studio, locked the gate, and went off to find a pawnshop.

The person who took the stuff knew exactly where to go.

Occam's razor suggests the following: a previous guest duplicated our key, waited for everyone to leave, then helped themselves to whatever they could find inside.

We started talking to the neighbors, did they see anyone? Our neighbor from across the fence  he restores antiques at home  says yeah, I saw a couple come to your place, they looked kind of suspicious, so I just watched. They were in and out in less than a minute, both carrying things.

We talked to him some more  the time matched. It was when everyone was gone. He said they whispered, stopped to take a look around, then went inside.

So we show him a picture  "yep, these were the peeps that were creeping into your place".

What the fuck?  we think.

What the fuck is this: we had to get reviews to build up our reputation and increase our price, so we were in no position to deny people reservations based on their lack of reputation. It's a chicken and egg problem.

Airbnb uses pretty faint signals for verifying members: phone number, FB, Twitter, LinkedIn accounts. These things are basically irrelevant in the world of shared economy. What's not irrelevant is reputation from other shared economy businesses, like SideCar or TaskRabbit.

It's understandable that eBay or Amazon will never want to make their member reputation portable  they will lose business as a result.

But shared economy as a whole will benefit tremendously if businesses allow a "fourth party" to serve as a reputation service. This would also help alleviate one of the biggest headaches of launching a new service: building a reputation system. If I were able to import my SideCar driver reputation into Airbnb, we would not have started from zero and maybe we would have been able to be more picky with our guests from the beginning.

Are you looking for a startup idea? Make reputation portable for the shared economy.


  1. Won't a "fourth party" become a single point of failure ??

  2. Eventually. Initially, there will be points of failure pretty much all over the place.

  3. Andrei, Completely agree. There will always be a battle with the shared economy and trust, you have to just add as many barriers to protect it as possible. As with your key copying incident a Lockitron type device which you can set pass codes to a schedule (therefore no key to copy) would be a nice starter solution.

    There is a platform here in the UK called which is trying to aid the who you are in the real world online.

    I also tried something similar to a few years ago more focused around reviewing but I came to the same resolution as you. I have a concept on my ever ending "Startups to do" list called Chain Me where the reputation between 2 parties is based on their degree of separation to each other where trust is supported by the theory that you wouldn't do anything bad to your friends uncles brother's work mate because there is a social link back to you. But even this possible solution is only 1 line of defense.

  4. Once you make my reputation data portable, won't I walk to a competitive service with it (if its better, that would anyway happen..okay! okay!)? Would a service not, hence, make it difficult to walk away with reputation data? There's a reason we have walled gardens like keep switching cost as high as possible :)

  5. Ashwin - I can use American Express to build up my credit score and then buy a car by using the credit score that came from the credit card use. It's a good thing. I can also start using a Visa instead, and that's a good thing too.

    We have a new, unregulated, economy. My point is that it needs a credit bureau.

  6. Sharing economy is a fascinating subject-- thanks for sharing your thoughts about it, Andrei. I've long felt that the Internet may be akin to the printing press or steam engine as far as its impact on the society goes. In the last few years the evidence for that has really started to surface.

    Now here's a crazy idea. You are saying that sharing economy needs a credit bureau, that is a third party authority to "vet" the offerer of the service. Well, how about online reputation points becoming currency themselves? That is, take the good old USD out of the picture entirely so nobody using the sharing economy ever spends or receives any USD at all. Instead, the participants' sole material incentive would be to receive more reputation points from other participants which would enable them to get their hands on more of the goods and services being offered.

    That's right, you do a good job with your cozy studio, gain recommendations and due to your awesomeness as per those recommendations, can rely on that credit (literally) to accommodate you and your family in someone's beach bungalow when you take your next trip to Hawaii. Then, when you need a haircut, you go online and find a stay-at-home barber. Nobody pays you for your studio but you don't pay for that bungalow or that haircut either.

    Think of it, good old USD is nothing but a system of reputation points that is backed by the US Government and, largely, its armed forces and police apparatus. Well, lately, the said entity hasn't been doing that great a job of spreading wealth around. It just doesn't deserve as many "likes" as it used to. So here's a real opportunity to take it out of the picture a bit.

    Of course, complex goods and services, such as medical care or machinery, are unlikely to ever be traded in the communal way that the sharing economy promotes, but so many things that we need day-to-day can actually become de-monetized by way of reputation points replacing "official" money. Maybe even food, if small farmers jump on this bandwagon. A startup that will become a mini- Federal Reserve, intriguing, yes? Potentially danegrous too, as the elite realizes where the wind is blowing.

    Sorry to hear about the break-in, though :(