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Social Computing and Reputation Systems

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

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May 11, 2006 5:10:00 PM

In my last post I wrote that online dating services would show us where online recruiting was headed. I believe this to be the case because they are both expressions of the same basic problem: how do I find a person who (fill in the blank). While the requirements may change, the processes have significant similarities.

But in this case it is the differences that illuminate. Innovation is a delicate organism that fares poorly in highly-regulated environments. Buyers whose first instinct is to avoid geting sued and fired will choose the tried and mediocre over the new and promising with depressing regularity. Recruiting is among the more closely-watched activities companies engage in, while dating is a veritable Wild West frontier. The bottom line here is that in dating, consumers and vendors can and will try anything to get better results, while in HR, it can takes years for an idea to gain acceptance. That's why I think it makes a practical "crystal ball."

At its heart, "social computing" could be summed up as the idea that the audience adds value to the performance. At one end of the scale, the audience is the performance, as in the case of eBay. One of the most important parts of eBay, arguably its crown jewel, are its member feedback ratings. By measuring and reporting objectively on the honesty
of its members, eBay has successfully convinced me and millions of other people to mail large checks to people we've never met for things we've never seen. This is no small achievement in a world where con artists lurk around every virtual corner.

In online dating, the critical transaction is the first date, after which the "online" aspect ceases to be relevant. As transactions go, it is a signficant one, involving a non-trivial investment of time, money, and personal safety. In other words, much more important than a vintage cocktail shaker. And yet, if you look at Match.com, there is no analog to eBay's member ratings. At first, this seems like a stunning omission: good user feedback scores on members would be hugely valuable to members and by extension to Match, which would obtain a proprietary advantage over other dating sites the same way Amazon's customer ratings give them an advantage over Barnes & Noble.

But the devil in the details is "good user feedback." Upon closer inspection, there are a number of important differences between the eBays and Amazons and the Matches of the world, and they explain why "good feedback" would very likely not be the rule.

Exclusivity: eBay is a "promiscuous" market in the sense that just because you buy a vintage cocktail shaker today, doesn't mean you will be less likely to buy a set of glasses tomorrow. Everyone is always "on the market." But in dating, a successful transaction takes two people off the market.

Easily Defined Criteria for Success: On eBay, there are really only two things for buyer and seller to argue over. Did the buyer pay quickly, and did the item arrive as described? Dating is infinitely more complicated.

Equality of Outcomes: eBay transactions are roughly speaking either good for both parties, or bad for both. Dates are much less uniform. One person may be content if they never see the other again, while the other is hopelessly smitten. Not a situation conducive to dispassionate analysis.

Dating is Recruiting
All of these examples can substitute the words "jobseeker" for "buyer" and "recruiter" for "seller" and the story remains largely the same. This doesn't mean a reputation system for recruiting purposes is impossible, but it does mean that the models we see currently in places like eBay would likely not translate well to recruiting.