Newcomers bring new levels of transparency on the web

31Mar10

In recent years the web has made the world a more transparent place. Social media encouraged users to voluntarily share personal information about their selves on the web and companies have found out, this sharing involves discussing their services online. These users do this to their own advantage, although they do not always oversee the consequences as the recent debate around Google Buzz and Facebook shows. For marketeers the advantage of this new media landscape is that they can listen in on what users are saying about the company in new way’s. On the other hand it carries the disadvantage that they do no longer own the information stream about their company to their users, making it harder to create and maintain a public image. Nestlé experienced that. Personally I feel this increased transparency is a good thing. I benefit from all the sharing, and companies are forced to act in a sincere and authentic way. But does it need to go even further?

Two new startups seem to think it should. I guess New Travelco will cause little controversy but their mission statment is promising. New Travelco says it believes “The increasing power of transparency, connectivity, and mobility will continue to open new worlds to travelers and new channels for suppliers.” According to this GigaOm post the service will integrate trip planning with aggregating user generated content such as hotel reviews. Competitors are TripAdvisor and TripIt but a smart user experience design can indeed increase the accessibility of user generated content, and as such influence buyers decisions more.

Certainly more controversial is Unvarnished, Unvarnished takes the mechanisms of restaurant review sites and applies it to people. This means that people can “endorse” each other just like on linked in, but on Unvarnished anyone can endorse you and you have no control over the visibility of that information. In other words if one of my students decides to proclaim I am a lousy teacher. I can react to it, or I can hope enough other students are willing to endorse me and tell the world I am an excellent capabilities (some bribery may help), but I cannot delete the comment. As GigaOm correctly observed my reputation managment is being crowdsourced.

Now, I feel it is a good thing the reputation management of companies such as restaurants and chocolate producers in the hands of their users, so it would be only fair to cheer about the possibility to have user generated content manage my teaching reputation. So why is it that I feel so uncanny about it? I turn out to have a sudden empathy with the local restaurant that had a bad day, and lost their business because of it. Even the palm oil criminals as Nestlé can now count on some of my sympathy! Clearly it is because I am only afraid of unbalanced reviews; I am afraid that one student, that I happened to piss of with a bad grade, could ruin my reputation while there is nothing wrong with my overall teaching. There is a selection bias; only those who feel very strongly about my teaching will go to the site to make a public statement about it, others will not. Unvarnished tries to tackle these concerns with an inbuilt reputation system, reviewers who post more reviews get more status their reviews get more weight and so on. And I guess they have to. Bringing user generated content very close to users is a sensitive thing to do. And I guess it is a good thing, because if my local restaurant has gone bankrupt unjustly, the next generation UGC sites can learn from the Unvarnished algorithms to prevent this in the future.

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