With everyone able to post an opinion online, it’s only a matter of time before our reputation capital will count more than our credit rating. Welcome to the digital future
When BlackBerry smartphone users lost their internet access for a few days recently, pressure came not just from the mainstream media but also from individual customers using social networking to vent their wrath. And it soon became clear that the $100 (£63) of free apps on offer from RIM by way of compensation might not be enough to calm their fury. Companies might have expected to ride out a PR crisis when most communication was one-way and in the hands of big institutions, but not anymore.
“Any consumer with an internet connection can quickly assemble information on any organisation,” says Sandra Ward, joint editor of the professional journal Business Information Review. “This enables them to challenge almost anything – the price, quality and legality of services.”
But while organisations are more exposed than ever before, consumers also need to use information wisely and ethically; if businesses are now in the goldfish bowl, so too are consumers. “Information literacy has never been more important,” says Ward.
All search engines and many websites use personalisation,
How do we ensure our digital identities reflect our real-world identities? How is trust built online?
New European Union rules are forcing websites to seek users’ permission before planting cookies – small programs that keep track of online activity – on their computers. And social media sites regularly attract criticism, from activists and the authorities, for being less than transparent with their users – for example, by not drawing attention to changes in privacy default settings.
None of this seems likely to halt consumer infatuation with screenbased content – and the arrival of portable devices such as e-readers and tablet computers has given a jolt to conventional publishing.
“Our research shows that when reading books online using a PC browser, the user experience is typically one of searching, browsing and skimming, and only very occasionally are individuals prepared to read in depth,” says Martha Sedgwick of academic publisher, Sage.
But with the increasing popularity of mobile devices, users are becoming more familiar with in-depth reading, she says. “Devices such as the Kindle and iPad are proving great tools for immersive reading and this is having an impact on how publishers design products.”
But for Rachel Botsman who writes on collaboration through network technologies, the impact that growing access to information will have on consumer behaviour is more fundamental than any of these specific developments indicate. If companies such as BlackBerry have to consider their reputations among web-savvy consumers, individuals have to look to protecting themselves, too, in this global online village.
Most people are probably familiar with eBay, but Botsman reels off a string of other community-driven marketplaces – such as Airbnb, Taskrabbit, Whipcar, Zopa – which she believes will drive the development of “reputation capital”. These websites cover services such as loans, finding accommodation and car hire and offer an easy way for those wanting a service to get in touch with someone offering what they need.
“The information we ask for and share to build trust between reputable strangers is an untapped market and big grey area,” Botsman says. But how do we ensure our digital identities reflect our realworld identities? How is trust built online? What questions do we need to ask to get the right information to trust someone? Who has access to that information?
Says Botsman: “I believe that it’s only a matter of time before our reputation capital will become a cornerstone of the 21st-century economy, a currency more powerful than our credit history.”
Tim Buckley Owen is news editor for FreePint’s VIP magazine and LiveWire blog, which help expert users keep up-to-date with business information developments and products. He also runs training courses in information skills.