This is my third blog post for The South. You can check it out over there, or just read it here.
In Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, all the world’s shortages have been solved. There’s no need for money, because there’s no lack of supply. Even death has been conquered. In a world with no need for money, what’s the currency? Doctorow’s solution to this problem is called whuffie, a currency based on reputation. Everyone has a bank of whuffie, and anyone can give you a little boost or ding you based on your actions. My favorite part of the concept is that there are two types of whuffie – left-handed and right-handed. When you meet someone in that world, you get a little graph that shows you the whuffie that person got from communities or people you basically agree with (right-handed) and the whuffie that person got from communities or people you don’t (left-handed). In Doctorow’s book, the people with the most whuffie are those that do the most menial jobs: the janitors, plumbers, garbage men, etc.
I read the book on a flight from San Jose to DC, and for five and a half hours, I was hooked. I finished the book about halfway through the flight and spent the rest of the time frantically scribbling in a notebook, trying to design a way to implement this concept in the real world, or at least on the internet. I was so fascinated that I spent the next several months trying to convince my company that we could actually implement it, and I still think it’s possible, and have implemented a crude whuffie system on Ficly.
Why is the idea of currency based on reputation so interesting? Because when I look at the internet, I see that reputation is already the primary currency. In every community, there’s some concept of reputation, although usually unspoken. Every community has cultural norms, and rewards those that exemplify those norms and punishes those that don’t. The primary driver for almost every community on the web is not money, but something else. That something else is the source of whuffie in those communities. The other important point is that whuffie doesn’t travel. Just because you have a good reputation on one site doesn’t mean that reputation will travel when you join another. I believe it should at least provide some informative value to the communities I join. Don’t make me go through the usual new user initiation if I’ve got a good reputation on other sites.
Let’s look at Flickr. The primary whuffie driver on Flickr is the photos people upload. Once you get a reputation as a great photographer, and have your photos show up on the Explore page, you’re considered a “success” on Flickr. But, there are many other valuable activities on Flickr, and on any social network, that should drive reputation but don’t. If you post the most constructive comments, there’s no quantified reputation for that… yet. If you post the most expressive and findable tags, there’s not quantified reputation or recognition of that very valuable contribution… yet. Both of those actions are extremely valuable to the community and are complimentary to the primary social object – the photo.
Social sites like Flickr are perfect playgrounds to implement whuffie. They’re self-contained and have a limited set of reputation-building or damaging actions. On Flickr, those include uploading photos, adding favorites, tagging, posting comments, deleting things and participating in groups. Once you identify those activities, it’s then trivial to add values to those actions and increment or decrement a user’s whuffie based on their actions. This takes some of the gamesmanship out of other rating systems and can provide a way to reward the community-building secondary actions – like commenting or tagging – without detracting from the primary whuffie builder. That way, everyone is rewarded for their actions, and there’s an easier path to finding “bad actors” in the system. They could also make those first social interactions on the site easier. You could give people some clue as to the person’s reputation on your first introduction to them. How much easier would it be if you got some idea of how reputable someone was when you got that connection request on LinkedIn?
There are people already working on implementing whuffie in the real world, and a lot more to it than what I’ve had the time to write. If I’ve piqued your interest, you should check out the Wikipedia page on whuffie. Tara Hunt has also written a great book called The Whuffie Factor about building and using whuffie in the real world, and someone’s even started a whuffie bank. I heartily recommend reading Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (you can download it for free), though, as it still has the best examples and explanation of whuffie. If you’d like to talk about whuffie in person, I’m speaking about it at Geekend in a couple weeks!