Reputation as virtual property

Kyle sez, "Yale Law Journal is running a symposium on law and the virtual world, and one of the articles they've recently published is in exerpt form at their online space. There's an extended discussion of reputation as a form of property online, reminiscent of whuffie."

I don't know that I'd call this "extended" -- more like an introduction to the topic with more questions raised than answered. But it's interesting stuff, nevertheless.

Anonymous blogging and commentary, on the other hand, correspond to the virtual world economies describe above. The reputational property this type of activity generates exists only online, associated with virtual identities that generally are not connected to any real-world identities. What enables this division from the real-world reputational economy is anonymity, which permits bloggers–or even blog commenters–to gain online status, often at the expense of others, without risking their own real-world status. And as with the online and virtual world economies, challenging problems arise when the two reputational economies meet, as happens when anonymous posters (members of the virtual-world-style reputational economy) attack nonanonymous online profiles (members of the online reputational economy). From a practical standpoint, it is difficult, though not impossible, to identify anonymous online attackers, making redress rare. But from a more theoretical standpoint, it is difficult to replace, with currency or any other kind of “old” property, the reputational property they have lost.
Reputation as Property in Virtual Economies by Joseph Blocher (Thanks, Kyle!)


  1. Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
    Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
    Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
    ’Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
    But he that filches from me my good name,
    Robs me of that which not enriches him,
    And makes me poor indeed.

    — Iago in Othello, Act III, scene iii

  2. Only a lawyer could place a value on nothing or people worry excessively if their character (Second Life, WoW… etc) is being sullied. In this context the difficulty lies in determining if you are being slandered or libeled when you are broadcasting / publishing yourself in a virtual world. For all other things the ‘normal’ world rules for published statements would apply (libel). Methinks someone looks to make some fast geld…

    “We probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of us if we could know how seldom they do.” – Olin Miller

  3. “Only a lawyer could place a value on nothing”

    which would you prefer: to hear Angelina Jolie whisper “I want you now!” in your ear at three AM – or me? Same words (well, some drier and less mucousy). What vision would you prefer haunt your wet dream? Bloody primates; you RUN on illusion. You all carry your little virtual world around between your ears and every good or bad thing you do comes from it.

  4. #3:

    It’s completely understandable to have trouble with property as an abstract but it’s completely natural for lawyers. For the extent of this discussion between lawyers I think you can consider “property” to be a technical term.

    To someone who employs a lawyer property is physical but the lawyer only considers the rights which rest on that property. An owner has a right to control a thing and it’s that right which is legally interesting whereas the house, car, whatever isn’t the legal concept.

    Personally I understand the idea of protecting (as you have a right to in property) a reputation against the world but I think the act which affects the reputation is defamation and that’s already understood.

    Valuation of that reputation is incredibly subjective but its effect is clear – respected bloggers can earn a living through ad revenue which is diretly relate to their readership. If someone was to attack that reputation the blogger would create an economic loss.

    It not possible to directly equate reputation to a house (heritable property) but both are important and that’s important to think of. It’s an interesting debate though and something I think is a little late in this apparently “information economy”

  5. There is no property that can not be converted except for 1) volition, and 2) intent.

    These things are inalienable and obtainable in a court of law before a jury of peers.

    See the binary.

  6. Takuan,

    Fortunately I live in the real world and have no visible fantasies regarding either Angelina or yourself whispering in my ear at 3AM or any time for that matter

    However, according to the Darwinian perspective, I am a ‘bloody primate’ so part of me would probably go down the basic, primitive, approach to mating that we all invariably do me little good in a modern ‘civilization’.

    There is a path of scientific research that is moving toward the concept that we all live in a 2D world as 3d holograms. This would make Angelina rather flat chested and ‘good or bad things’ rather limited in their scope.


    For further references I quote:


  7. The original gist, if I may, was to see if we could run forever on plastic dreams, or if there is no end to the stone beneath our feet.

    You may choose your ideally realized vision of your reality, however, the winds blow in a fashion that is not of our own making…unless we ask them.

  8. Maybe instead of calling it property, they should call it “responsibility” instead. Whose responsibility is it to protect an online reputation from libel and slander? Personally, I think its our own: online communities are public forums, even if they are marked private. Or as my mother put it, don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t tell someone face to face in a crowded room.

  9. The problem with saying an “online forum” is the responsibility of the posters is that the administrators have nothing to say in the transaction. They are not only left without culpability for their actions, they can not defend themselves.

    Property and responsibility are related, but definitely distinct from one another.

  10. Just because it’s a phenomenon that we don’t understand doesn’t mean that we have to study it as a manifestation of property rights-based economics. Not everything is economics.

    Though, I guess when all you’ve got is a hammer (econ/law degree), every problem starts looking like a nail (un-formalized market).

  11. Economics, as a subset of sociology, is merely the study of how humans act regarding the problem of scarcity.

    There’s nothing “scarce” about reputation. But there is a tendency, particularly among the more Objectivist-inclined, to believe that anything with potential value must be assimilated into the bulwark of “property”. c.f. so-called “intellectual property”

    However, this vulgarization of the word “property” undermines its genuinely useful definition, just as when G.W. Bush says “freedom” when he means “empire”, or “disappointments” when he means “mistakes”, and other such newspeak.

    As I quoted Inigo Montoya, he’s using the word “property” as if it meant something else… perhaps more like “cultural currency” or “cachet”.

  12. Daemon @3, your bank account is just bits on a hard drive somewhere, no more objectively real than an online forum reputation metric. But you think of your bank account as property, don’t you?

    Arguably, that reputation metric is less abstract than fiat currency in a fractional reserve banking system.

  13. Ever since I read Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom I’ve wanted a Wuffie account. I wish some powerful economist would design and instantiate a Wuffie system. I’ve though about how it might work and came up with…
    1. Everyone that wants in donate $x to a trust fund that is invested in ethical companies and industries.
    2. Members can nominate any ‘Entity’ (Person, place, or thing) for a Wuffie point award based on altruistic acts, scientific or artistic accomplishment, contribution to the biosphere, etc.
    3. The more people that agree with the award nomination the higher the multiplier for the points awarded.
    4. They can be awarded to Entities that did not buy in – an awarding of points automatically ‘opting them in’, this allows for the awarding of Wuffie to non-sentients such as works of art, theme parks, and wetland marshes.
    5. Once an Entity reaches a certain threshold of accumulated Wuffie persons and establishments registered with the Wuffie program would then give discounts and complimentary goods and services – drawing on the trust fund to compensate for their extra-Wuffie system expenses

    1. The Entity that finds an inoculation for HIV, and releases the information on how to create and deliver it to the Commons would probably get enough Wuffie to rarely have to pay for anything.
    2. A mural on a downtown street that many enjoy is going to be covered over by an advertising billboard, but it has accumulated enough Wuffie that acting on its behalf the Wuffie trust buys/leases the space and erects a steel frame and lexan window over it to protect it from the elements and prevent it from being obscured.
    3. A wetland marsh is slated for development into a gated community but bird watchers and others that like the swamp the way it is nominate the swamp for Wuffie, and end up accumulating enough to qualify the swamp for enough trust money for it to purchase itself – the swamp becomes its own owner in perpetuity (yes, far fetched I know, but it’s just an example).

    Anyone wanna poke holes in my concept? I’d love to hear some critique, or possible refinements.

  14. DAVID@5
    There is nothing under man-made sun or previously known biological origin that we are not subject to.

    If you don’t believe it, don’t. It’s just hard to shut the eye once it’s been given the eagle’s talon.

  15. My opinion of you is not your property.

    The whole idea of reputation as property is based on a misunderstanding. Your reputation is formed of other people’s opinions, and those people have a right to form their opinions on any basis they like, and to change them at will. My opinion can’t be your property if I can take it away whenever I want.

    If others are being intentionally misled about you, the primary insult is to them, not you, even if it damages you. It may make sense, from a policy point of view, to have a libel law that allows you to allow you to protect them from being so misled, but to say that you own your reputation is to say that you own their minds.

    If you think about it this way, the example of “selling a business with goodwill” starts to look like institutionalized fraud. After all, I deal with a business because I like the way it’s run. If somebody new is running it, is it OK to actively conceal that from me?

  16. @16 Avram

    Arguably, that reputation metric is less abstract than fiat currency in a fractional reserve banking system.

    Ah, now that is an intriguing juxtaposition… between reputation systems and the “confidence” so often referred to in the inherently insolvent fractional reserve banking system.

  17. I wouldn’t have trouble calling reputation a form of property. Property is a function of labour (“it’s min because I worked for it”), and it does require labour to gain a reputation – passively from the things one does, and actively through cultivating one’s relationships.

    However it is quite different from material things because it is transient and not naturally scarce.

  18. To further expound on what Anon #3 said above, in law school we are taught that property is merely a “bundle of rights,” which you may disaggregate and exchange. We don’t think of property as physical objects in law school.

    Also, yay. Something I submitted got posted here! YLJ has a whole series of articles that were posted in the past few days. This one just jumped out at me because it struck me (a bit) that it was evocative of Cory’s Whuffie system.

    As someone who (I like to think) is relatively respected as a good and competent person, I’d love to live on a system of Whuffie rather than Dollars.

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