Social Reputation; A Tale of Two Websites

I was recently introduced to Mixtent, a social website with the goal of assigning a reliable professional reputation to its users across a number of distinct skills. For more background information, here is a TechCrunch article from Mixtent’s launch in late January. In essence they hope to build an accurate and reliable database of peoples’ professional abilities, presumably so that it might prove a useful tool for recruitment agencies and HR departments alike (whom they can charge for access, of course). And while I think this is an interesting and worthwhile goal, I think Mixtent is going about it in completely the wrong way, as can be demonstrated by contrasting Mixtent with another website which accomplishes (though perhaps inadvertently) the same thing through very different means; StackOverflow.

Mixtent is relatively new to the scene, but it follows an all-too-familiar structure. First, you cannot do anything until you are connected to a sufficient number of people on Mixtent. Don’t have enough connections? Then never fear, Mixtent will kindly offer to trawl through your Gmail, Facebook and LinkedIn accounts and bug all of your friends and contacts to come and join you on Mixtent (and to all my fellow developers, can we please stop using this obnoxious pattern? The goal should be to build something that is so cool that people want to show it to their friends, not to build something that tries to make itself look cool by coercing people into showing it to their friends. If you need to force people to share your creation with their friends, then you have already failed). Once you have amassed a large enough number of contacts to appease the Mixtent gods, you get to see what the application is all about. Basically, you give your opinion about how well your contacts stack up in various areas of expertise, and they do the same for you (and of course, as a “social” app, your visibility and interactions are limited to just your immediate circle of contacts). Simple enough, really, but is there any value in it?

At its most fundamental level and like so many other social offerings, Mixtent is nothing more than a glorified popularity contest, and this makes any sort of reputation score that it might generate highly suspect. If you’re popular enough to have a large network and are well-liked by the people in that network, then you are almost guaranteed to have a very good reputation on Mixtent. But does that reputation mean that you are actually skilled professionally, or does it just mean that you are popular and well-liked? At a minimum one can say that it means that you may be skilled professionally, but since Mixtent ratings are just the composite of the personal opinions of your social contacts and are not backed up by anything substantial, they certainly cannot be taken to mean that you are definitely skilled in any of your claimed areas of proficiency. From a practical/hiring standpoint, they ought to be considered all but worthless.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I remember a Facebook app that did more or less the same thing as Mixtent (albeit with even less relevant topics like “who would you rather hook up with”), and I can’t imagine anyone using the output of such an application to make hiring decisions. At its core, the output of this Facebook app was little more than amplified conjecture, opinion, and hearsay, and sadly such is the case with Mixtent as well.

So let’s contrast the Mixtent experience with the StackOverflow experience. One major difference that’s readily apparent is that while the StackOverflow experience is far more socially engaging than the Mixtent experience, StackOverflow has no underlying social architecture to speak of. You cannot have friends, contacts, acquaintances, or any other direct relationship between your account and another user’s. The structure has more in common with an online forum than a social-networking website. This has at least one major positive impact; on StackOverflow, there is no nagging to invite all your friends, and no limitation of functionality until you have built some minimal number of connections (although you do gain access to additional privileges as you build a better reputation, none of these privileges are essential to the use of the site; all the basic functionality is open to everyone). Anyone can sign up for an account (or just log in with an existing, supported OpenID account) and get started instantly.

Another major difference is that on StackOverflow, people don’t rate you directly. Instead they rate your contributions to the community, and your overall reputation is determined by the overall value of all your contributions. This means that building a positive reputation takes much more work than it does on Mixtent. No longer is it sufficient to be popular and well-liked. Instead you must devote time to the community, make contributions, and ensure that your contributions are good enough that other community members will acknowledge their value. So there is no fast-track to the top of StackOverflow. This may be seen by some as a negative, but the trade-off is that unlike Mixtent rankings, a StackOverflow reputation score actually means something. If a user has a high positive reputation, it means that they worked hard to earn it by making contributions that their peers deemed valuable. Their work has been repeatedly marked as useful by other community members, so it’s safe to say that they probably know what they’re talking about.

The core difference between these two approaches, then, is that in the Mixtent version your peers modify your reputation by rating you directly as a person (your reputation is a function of how well other people like you), while in the StackOverflow version your peers modify your reputation by rating you indirectly through your contributions (your reputation is a function of how well other people like the work that you produce). One approach allows you to quickly compute a reputation that is based more upon popularity than anything else, while the other takes significantly longer but produces a reputation that accurately reflects the value of a person’s work in a given area. I think it’s clear which one of these I think is more valuable, and if I were a hiring manager, I would certainly prefer seeing someone’s StackOverflow profile over their Mixtent reputation any day of the week.

The interesting thing is that StackOverflow has managed to be better at Mixtent than Mixtent, even though it was never intended that way, and even though it lacks any sort of social framework. All the same basic features are there. For instance, there are multiple networks for different distinct topics (coding, law, mechanics, etc.), and reputation does not carry over from one network to another, and as you contribute and gain reputation in a topic all of your contributions are tagged with the specific area of expertise they apply to, and these tags become an integral part of your profile/overall reputation, saying in which specific areas your core strengths lie.

That said, I do think there is room in the equation for a social infrastructure. I can imagine something similar to StackOverflow, but with private or semi-private groups that can be used to create associations between users. These groups might be specific to a company (like “all employees at Google”) and/or perhaps to a specific problem-domain or area of interest. Then you can retain all the existing public interactions, but also add on top of it an additional layer of interaction that happens with one’s networked peers. A person’s contribution within their social groups might be accessible only to other members of that same group but still factored in as a component of their overall reputation. Such a setup would also allow for interesting queries, such as “who is the highest-ranking contributor at Google” and “which company has the highest average employee reputation”, among others.

So in the end, I think Mixtent gets a lot of things wrong, StackOverflow gets a lot of things right, and there’s still room for improvement in the domain of efficiently computing a reliable, meaningful social reputation score. I would love to see someone take up the challenge of either building a StackOverflow-like site on top of a social architecture, or of patching a social network into StackOverflow. I think the end result of such a project would be something awesome.

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