Oh What A Tangled Web We Weave, When First We Practice To Deceive

by Michael Bell
Reputation is emerging as the solution to the Internet's web of deception. That's no news: reputation was one of the bedrocks of human social development. Last time, it took a million years or so to evolve; on the web, after 15 years, it is already close.

Spam, phishing, 50-year-old perverts masquerading as 15-year-old football-playing girls, overweight ladies of a certain age miraculously losing 20 kilos and 20 years, it's all based on deception.

It takes more subtle forms, on the Internet, as well. Wikipedia editors sheltering behind their grand pseudonyms impose limited cultural agendas and their doctrinal prejudices on well-meaning attempts to broaden the scope of articles, while blogs, forums and comment spaces are full of Gay Dogs or WindFlowers snarling or smarming their duplicitous way into saying what they wouldn't dare to voice in the pub or the coffee-shop. They are never held to account for their opinions.

Deception is widely described among proto-social groupings of animals (eg monkeys) but it doesn't seem to have adverse consequences for the social position of the individual until the group acquires more sophistication. It is one weapon among many, that is all. But once the group starts to have internal organisation, and individuals have knowledge of each other's characteristics (roughly coeval with the use of language and the increase in brain size that led to the emergence of homo sapiens) then deception, if practised in the group, is rapidly noticed and punished by expulsion or withdrawal of group benefits (grooming, access to females, inclusion in trade).

Reputation management is prime among the social skills which people developed in early group social environments, and it will come to the fore on the Internet just as soon as there is transparency of identity. If anything, communication (electronic gossiping!) will become more thorough and more immediate than it is in real life. Every actor, whether human or robotic, will have access to complete, global information about miscreants. You can sin once, but you are then damaged goods in reputation terms.

It is already true in some Internet environments (call them societies) such as e-bay and virtual internet communities that individuals have to develop consistent, trustworthy identities before they can fully participate; but so far, at any rate, those identities don't have to match or even overlap their real-world identities. Not that real-worldies are restricted to just one identity: everybody has a whole set of identities which come into play in the various groups to which they belong. But reputation management includes balancing these differing identities so that one stays within accepted norms. Jekyll and Hyde won't do!

Perhaps there will come to be two sorts of identity on the Internet, 'real' and 'play'. You will just have to say which is which, that's all!



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