We live in a reputation economy.
If you've used Airbnb, Ebay, Uber, Lyft, or Etsy, it's likely you've been reviewed by a person you've done commerce with. They may have given you five stars and commented on your cleanliness or your swift responses, or may have given you a low rating, along with comments about your rudeness. Sometimes you can see the review you get and sometimes you can't, but as Wired convincingly argued last year, these reviews are the underpinning for all the new peer-to-peer businesses that depend on people trusting each other.
"The massive growth of the share economy is built around reputation," says Zach Schiff-Abrams. "But all that reputation is silo-ed."
Schiff-Abrams is the founder and CEO of a start-up called Karma, which wants to put all of our reputation ratings from various sites into one great big character assessment bucket: one score to rule them all.
As a personal example, Schiff-Abrams cites when he and his girlfriend signed up as hosts for DogVacay.com, a kind of Airbnb for dogs. "As first time users, it was hard to get people to trust us with their dogs," he says. "But that wouldn't have been the case if they could have seen my Airbnb karma."
While it's a potentially powerful idea to have people's reputations follow them from site to site, it requires a critical mass of both sites and participants. Karma is in beta right now, with just 7,000 users whose scores of 1 to 100 are based on scraping a limited number of sites—including Facebook and LinkedIn, which simply confirm that you're a real person, and Airbnb, eBay and Etsy, which actually have ratings and reviews that Karma scores with sentiment analysis. Karma hopes one day that sites like Uber and Lyft, whose review systems are private, will give the start-up access to their internal reviews. Schiff-Abrams is hopeful that what Karma offers in return—digital footprints for otherwise brand-new users—would make it worth it to them.
But the real interest the company is seeing so far is from companies that don't have any reputation platform of their own. Eighty percent of the company's new users are coming from Craigslist, where people are adding Karma to their listings.
"Eventbrite told us they have a problem with fraud by new event organizers and would like to incorporate reputation scores," said Schiff-Abrams. "And we got approached by a small dating company out of Chicago that wants to incorporate Karma. If you could see a fellow member's Karma score and could see they were a kickass dog sitter, it might make you more likely to go on a date with him."
They're not the first to try to score people. Klout gave people "influence" scores based on their social media followings, and a start-up called Rapleaf tried to track reputation before ultimately becoming a data broker. But Karma sounds more like the system dreamed up by Gary Shteyngart in Super Sad True Love Story, where ratings and rankings are so readily accessible that people walk into bars and instantly download the personality and "fuckability" scores of everyone else there.
We're not there yet though. Right now, the platform is pretty limited, the user base is low and people's profiles are sparsely populated, but even with Karma's current limitations, Kenneth Mosby, who runs a medical marijuana delivery business in Los Angeles, says it's been useful to include a link to his Karma profile in his Craigslist ads.
He has a score of 63, based on connecting various social media accounts and an eBay account with two positive reviews from 2007 and 2008; he also has a "vouch" from a fellow Karma user. Mosby says his business is tough because legal drugs are still a novelty and his customers find him through Craigslist or Backpage, platforms that don't have a built-in reputation platform that will let potential customers know he's legit.
"It's difficult not having reviews. People use reviews to decide how to judge you," said Mosby. He says that pointing people to his Karma profile has helped get people who haven't purchased from him before to trust him.
The way Mosby is displaying his Karma is a kind of hack to get around the fact that not many people are using Karma yet. The company has a browser extension that will overlay the score for any of its users wherever you might spot them on the web, though given its small number of users, it's not very helpful yet.
"Imagine if you had this as an Airbnb guest and you're looking at a place that has no reviews," says Schiff-Abrams. "You'd be able to look at the host's Karma score and see if they have good reviews elsewhere which would probably give you a sense of whether you could trust their listing."
That of course presents the problem with this system. If you signed up for Karma and got a low score and the compilation of horrible reviews from across the web, wouldn't you just delete your account? Schiff-Abrams admits that's a possibility, though says he hopes that person would be a better actor on those platforms to improve his or her rating.
"We're trying to reward good behavior," said Schiff-Abrams. "Ultimately, we look at the score as a way of building our user base. People like scores and adding more and more accounts to increase theirs. Once we reach scale, and Karma becomes the standard for reputation, score won't matter. It'll be users' ability to look at this information."
But there are people out there who don't have accounts to add: those who stay off of Facebook, do their shopping in person, and book hotels not Airbnbs.
"We call them digital ghosts," he said. Karma is still figuring out how to address giving reputation scores to online ghosts. At this point, to incorporate those users, the company is planning to rely on a reputation score that has been around for decades. People with no online accounts will be able to use their FICO score as a measure.