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Trust Building Online: Rating and Reputation Systems

As new Internet technology facilitates democratic participation online through open publishing and cyber activism, new challenges arise. How can we create and maintain trust in online communities? Rating and reputation systems are being implemented on many sites to cope with this concern.

Rating Systems

Open publishing websites—where users can post content directly to the site—can become cluttered and noisy if content is completely unmoderated. In an effort to strike a balance between the democratic principles of open publishing and maintaining standards of quality, some sites have incorporated rating systems, allowing readers to collaboratively impose editorial influence on the sites’ content. In some cases, registered users have access to as-yet unpublished content, and have a say in whether it will be posted to the site. In other cases, visitors to the site rank articles on a numerical scale, influencing how prominently an article will be featured or contributing to an average score which will serve as a guide to other users.

Such schemes, while not flawless, can contribute to users’ sense of trust. When rating software helps the community to eliminate bogus posts or send low-quality content down in a queue of articles, users become more confident that they will find useful content when they visit these sites. At the same time, allowing users to rate articles and/or develop rank over time, trust-building software help foster community-driven, bottom-up social organizations that are more democratic and less rigid than traditional bureaucracies.

Examples of Websites Using Rating Schemes

Discordia is based on a customized version of the Scoop weblog software that provides a multi-layered discussion interface, similar to the Slashdot and Indymedia websites. The aim of Discordia is to develop a community based on open editing and open publishing principles in which users can both publish their own contributions and comment on postings of other users. A system of community moderating allows users to rate articles and user comments.

This site is community-edited—users decide what gets posted. Once a user creates an account and logs on, s/he can see submitted but as-yet unposted articles and recommend them for posting or for dumping.

The Tennessee Independent Media Center
Unlike many of the other IMCs, this Indymedia site encourages users to rate content, influencing how much prominently an article is displayed.

Reputation Systems

Just as rating schemes provide information about the perceived quality and utility of online content, reputation systems give people information about contributors’ past performances. Software such as mojo and karma can enhance an on-line interaction environment by helping people decide who to trust and encouraging trustworthy behavior. It can also serve as an incentive for people to become more active within the online community. However, reputation systems are not without drawbacks. Web sites and other online communities run the risk of evolving over time into hierarchical structures that may lead to abuses of power – a recurring topic of debate for many online groups.

Examples of Websites Using Reputation Systems

Kuro5hin uses mojo to allow users to moderate the site. Mojo is a time-weighted average of comment ratings, in order to set the "initial" rating for each new comment.

This “News for Nerds” site uses a moderation system for both articles and authors that allows for a largely self-governed news outlet that obviates most hierarchical editorial functions. Regular users earn “karma” by submitting stories that get chosen for posting, and by posting comments which are rated by other users. As users’ karma goes up, they have a stronger voice on the site, and as their karma goes down they lose moderation power.

Links to Reputation System Resources

Everything Company
Reputations Research Network

Articles on Reputation Systems and Trust-Building Online

Building Communities with Software by Joel Spolsky

Open Rating Systems by R. Guha

Social Software and the Politics of Groups by Clay Shirky

Cyber Activism and Social Strategies for Trust-Building Online

As activists turn to Internet technology to facilitate grassroots campaigns, they must find ways to foster and maintain trust within and between networks. Two approaches to trust-building online can be applied independently or in concert: trust-enhancing software including rating and reputation schemes, and the traditional social interactions which build trust by developing relationships over time.

Although many collaborative and open publishing sites depend on software to enhance levels of trust, activist networks, like all social groups, have been addressing the issue of trust since long before the Internet and social software existed. Social mechanisms for developing and maintaining trust within groups are still viable in the realm of cyber activism. Basic principles are at work in the network environment: networks are held together by shared values, common goals and unifying ideas. As connections between network members increase communication becomes denser as people and groups interact more, developing relationships and building trust.
While issue-driven organizations naturally attract people with shared values and common goals, sites can actively work to enhance trust while growing the network by encouraging existing members to recommend their site to new members MoveOn.org relies on it’s member base for word-of-mouth and email recommendations; E The People has a “pass it on” solicitation linked to their petition feature which suggests that users “List up to ten email addresses and we'll pass on the exact web address of this petition plus a personal message from you”), or asking members to sponsor new members (LiveJournal requires new members to be sponsored by existing members).


The Augmented Social Network: Building Identity and Trust into the Next-Generation Internet: A Link Tank Report by Ken Jordan, Jan Hauser, and Steven Foster.

Could the next generation of online communications strengthen civil society by better connecting people to others with whom they share affinities, so they can more effectively exchange information and self-organize? Could such a system help to revitalize democracy in the 21st century?

Connecting with the Wired Left by William Schneider

“MoveOn has something of a fetish for participation and involvement. They ask people to do things.”

“People join our organization by taking some form of action, which sometimes means signing an online petition on our Web site. Sometimes it means calling their congressperson to speak out on an issue they care about.”

From Screen Savers to Progressive Savior? MoveOn.org Founder Galvanizes Opposition to Bush, Democratic Centrists

"The primary way to build trust is to consistently fight for things that people care about.” –Wes Boyd, MoveOn.org.

Global Civil Society Networks Online: Zapatistas, the MAI, and Landmines by Rory O’Brien

“The distinguishing feature of networks is their links, far more profuse and omni-directional than in other types of organization. As communication pathways increase, people and groups interact more. As more relationships develop, trust strengthens which reduces the cost of doing business and generates greater opportunities.”