Socialstructing: Statement of Social Currency

Guestblogger Marina Gorbis is executive director at Institute for the Future.

For the past 8 years at Institute for the Future, we have been creating "artifacts from the future." We see them as a means of converting abstract, high-level trends and future visions into tangible objects that help people internalize our forecasts. However, we do not view them as prototypes for building new products or services. Artifacts from the future are a good way to engage people in important conversations about the future and to elicit meaningful insights that hopefully lead to positive actions.

The above artifact, a "Reputation Statement of Account," was designed by our colleague Jason Tester, a researcher and a designer, as a part of our 2004 Ten Year Forecast. It remains one of my favorite artifacts and seems to perfectly encapsulate emergence of new types of social currencies as a part of a reorganization of our lives around social relationships. In this world, it would be easy to imagine that the statement of your wealth would include accounting of your social capital as measured by contributions to various types of open communities, such as Wikipedia or Flickr.


  1. Good call, Tomchaps @1.

    From Wikipedia:

    Whuffie is the ephemeral, reputation-based currency of Cory Doctorow’s science fiction novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

  2. I fear the thought that I am only as valuable as my social connections. I’m an extreme introvert (one might say “hermit”) and, while I do have an online presence (see? it’s right here!) I’m not concerned with my followers or my readership or adding to the idiotocracy that is Wikipedia.

    What about “taught neighbors how to can the produce from their fruit trees”? Or “donated leftover garden bounty to soup kitchen”? Or any one of the myriads of ways that people in the flesh-and-blood world improve the lives of those around them without ever plugging something in?

    Virtual =/= good.

  3. I am somewhat fascinated by the concept of social currency and whuffie, and specifically the symbolization or abstraction of reputation (or, more usefully perhaps, contributions to the social good) into some kind of number that can be presented to someone who doesn’t know you as evidence that you are worthy to recieve goods.

    After all, my statement from my bank tells me I have a certain number of dollars, and I can go to across the country and expect to hand over a number of dollars to a complete stranger in exchange for goods. On the other hand, I can have a great reputaion, be seen as a great and wonderful contributer to my community, and that gets me squat with people outside of that community.

    Whuffie, as described by Mr Doctorow, has an infrastructure that allows anyone to assess your reputation (though again, I think “value to society” would be more appropriate) and decide whether to provide goods and services. The internet has the potential to be, or to be host to, such an infrastructure, but we still have a lot of thinking to do about those numbers and what they are worth.

    In non-zero-sum scenarios, where cost of production approaches zero, or is non-linearly related to revenue recieved from it, it seems simple enough to use reputaion as currency – someone of high enough whuffie can get a copy of my digital work, for instance, and I know that my own whuffie will be increased through his interactions with the community while the cost of the copy is essentially zero. The cost of the original work that went into it presumably can be returned to me in whuffie and services others provide to someone with my enhanced level of whuffie.

    Things get trickier when you are dealing with a limited, physical commodity (iron or hours of work, or meat) where at some point down the chain someone needs hard currency or raw materials.

    Anyway, rambling now, but this kind of thing is exactly what the Institute for the Future is good for, and seeing a “statement of reputation” really makes you think about the details. What, exactly, does +50.0 mean? Do you keep that +50.0 forever, or does it decay as your name recognition decays? How many points do I need before I can get someone to hand me an ice cream cone without also handing over a dollar?

    Thank you Marina (and colleagues) for stimulating conversation and thought about this.

  4. is that a welcomed vision for the future that one’s so called social activities are monitored and accounted for on a receipt? It s the opposite that counts: to monitor institutions and corporations rather than individuals.

  5. The things listed in the “reputation statement of account” in the picture above don’t really seem like much social currency to me, unless volunteering an hour at a homeless shelter is worth 10,000 Whuffies.

    Also, it’d be humorous to see some deductions from the statement.

    Thirdly, the statement seems pretty cut and dried. I would think that recording a podcast would be wildly variable in its worth, depending on listeners.

  6. Every one of those examples pertaining to the internet in the picture could be abused. And credit for blogging? Some hipster is stroking himself a little too hard. You shouldn’t gain social status because you shouted things on the internet.

    Buying iTunes music gives you social credit? Wow what a good little consumer you are! *VOMIT*

    Quantifying reputation is one of the dumbest ideas I’ve heard in a long time.

  7. A reminder:
    “However, we do not view them as prototypes for building new products or services. Artifacts from the future are a good way to engage people in important conversations about the future and to elicit meaningful insights that hopefully lead to positive actions.”

    Driving a discussion is THE goal of artifacts:

    @3 – Yes…just as valuable! Tutored; grew a vegetable garden in the front yard; recyled gray water. All sorts of other good things should be included in one’s reputation
    @4 – Down and Out…what a great book!
    @5 – Orgs should have reputation statements as well!
    @6 – Deductions would be great!: Failed to use turn signal (-10); Littered (-50); mispronouncing nuclear (-10)

  8. This sounds spectacularly awful. No way do I want some self-appointed arbiter rating me on how well I recycle.

  9. Regarding the first entry on the list, Wikipedia does already have an entry for Ivrea, Italy (although it is only start class, so it needs work).


  10. Dmitry Orlov in _Reinventing Collapse_ writes about the “collapse gap” between the former USSR and the USA these days. It is his contention that social capital was much more widespread and useful in the former USSR than in these United States today. He has a point, at least ostensibly, although that may be changing rapidly with the growth of farmers’ markets, community gardens, CSAs, weatherization barnraisings, and Transition Towns.

    Time Dollars is an economic/social structure that would fit into your idea of social currency and may be poised for a take off if the economy continues to falter. Maker culture, open source invention, skill share networks, nerdfests and such seem to be on the rise and may also begin to pick up some of the slack.

  11. This discussion is great. The artifact is doing exactly what we intended it to do–provoke questions and thinking.

    @JUNGLEMONKEY I totally agree with you–measuring social connections or contributions is not the only way to judge reputation or social capital. Recycling, helping a neighbor, volunteering in a homeless shelter are among other. What this artifact illustrates is that there are many other currencies we accumulate and trade in and increasingly we will be able to measure and trade in these.

    @KENNRIC Thanks for your “ramblings” :-). I appreciate you seeing complexity of measuring social behaviors. I am the first to admit that I hate any singular measures and metrics that supposedly tell you something a person. We now how notorious bad SAT, GPA, or AP scores are at predicting someone’s success in life. Reducing a complex individual to a number, however it is derived, is fraught with problems.

    @ONIGOROM When we create artifacts like these we don’t view them as something desirable, we view them as likely possibilities based on signals (trends) we see around us. We are increasingly leaving trails of information about ourselves in multiple places–Facebook, twitter, EBay, etc. This social information is increasingly visible and measurable.

  12. I thought this was a cute image, but I agree with the commenters here, I don’t want my social status to depend on whether or not I have an ipod, and what is on it.
    I used to blog– a LOT.
    Now I have a two year old. I’m lucky to have an hour or two here at night to read BLOGS.

    The internet is important, but where’s my social cred for pushing my son on the swing? And cooking healthy meals with him?

    And more importantly, would I care, because this is what I want to do, and the kind of people who need a piece of paper to validate what they do in the world, aren’t doing it for the right reasons.

  13. social standing can turn instantly into social condemnation, With or without reason or cause.

  14. Social standing in our online networks is so hard to ascertain. We can say and do so many things online but how do we ever really know what people think about us? (if anything!)

    It would be kind of cool if we could vote on every story, every comment. How hard would it be tabulate a score for reputation? Then you’d really know. The way it is now you just have to infer what people think about you… or willfully ignore the signs and press on as though it doesn’t matter.

  15. I can’t wait to be evaluated. You really like me! You really like me! Is there a big deduction for too many porn downloads? Because that could really mess with my rating.

  16. Porn is private. That shouldn’t factor into your reputation rating. Unless you were to share your experiences publicly, by discussing them on a comments board like this one. Then they might. You say, “I like porn,” and then the community weighs in by voting you up or down. Who knows? Maybe it would make your rating go up… The point is, you don’t know.

    All your online purchasing activity should be considered private, btw…

  17. I am reminded of Howard L. Myers story All Around the Universe, where the currency are called Admires – Its a pretty interesting set up. Anything you do that other people appreciate earns them Admires and costs YOU admires. So you pay more for your burger if you enjoy it more.

    Of course, it means flings can be a bit expensive, and falling head over heals in love with someone is downright bankrupting.

    Also, Scott Westerfield had a Reputation based society in the Uglies series that is rather similiar to this, since popular bloggers are therefore super-wealthy. Its good in some ways, poor in others. This concept has been done plenty of times in sci-fi, but its still interesting to think about every now and again.

  18. The idea behind this makes me really, really sad. Must we embrace the rush to monetize / quantify absolutely everything?

    If reputation has to be quantified so that one can look up someone they’ve never heard of before to figure out how much to respect them, then you are not dealing with “reputation” any more. If I have not heard of you, then you have no reputation with me, by definition.

    Also, whose value system is codified in this (or any such) scheme? Who says that purchasing something from iTunes makes you 2 points better? I guess Apple would say this. I certainly wouldn’t.

    Finally, reducing ethics to accounting seems profoundly immoral to me.

  19. Wow the comments above are clueless, for the most part. The first point to clear up is that Reputation is already a critical part of developed economies. If you use your credit card to purchase something but you don’t pay your bill, your reputation (with the Credit agencies…primitive reputation servers) is diminished.

    If you sell crummy goods or provide crummy service on eBay, your reputation takes a hit and your sales will decrease.

    These, still, are quite modern versions of reputation, which has been around forever. People in ancient times even accumulated reputation and then spent it on this or that.

    The future is only different insofar as the reputations will be held in a server, and you may even be able to issue your own cash based on either your reputation in a single domain, or your reputation across numerous domains.

    As for the iTunes example…we already see reputations in this space but it’s not Apple that coins them. In colleges people can post their music lists and, as someone’s reputation for good music within a specific community increases, more people start following what that person is listening to.

  20. nope. Credit “reputation” as practiced with credit card companies takes no notice of your character or individuality in any way. It is a just a statistical machine set up to milk money out of the mass of people and does it well.

  21. Yep.
    The credit bureaus receive payment information about debtors from lenders so that other lenders can make a predictive determination about the risk of lending to someone based on their past behavior, or reputation. The bureaus do indeed keep your payment history along with what your current outstanding loans are. It is the very essence of your credit “reputation”.

    Reputation servers in the more forward-looking sense will capitalize on all sorts of kinds of reputation, depending on the needs of specific communities. The credit bureaus are just one more primitive version, focused purely on credit worthiness. Reputation in the forward-looking sense is not (and will never be) some universal judge of character. Reputation will only have a meaning to those that decide to subscribe to a specific server.

  22. “reputation” to a credit card company is the same as a battery chicken farmers view of a layer: so many exactly predictable years of pumping out eggs and then the inevitable chop. The idea of having a “good” credit reputation is a pretty fiction set up to feed the ego and deceive by flattery the consumer chickens into not seeing the true relationship.

  23. My worth depending on what others think of my input into their world seems pretty foolish. I’m reminded of an old song lyric by Bob Dylan, “Ain’t no use to talk to me. It’s just the same as talking to you.”

    What’s to be said of people who would associate themselves with each other simply for what they can get from the other. Whew! What a world.

  24. Well, if you’re talking about the US that’s simply not the case.

    Now don’t think I’m arguing that the credit agencies are somehow benevolent and there for consumers. They’re not. They’re there to allow creditors to make money.

    That said, one’s credit rating does in general correlate with one’s propensity to repay in the future. And this credit rating is derived in a straightfoward way from your history of repayment. If this were not the case, then lenders wouldn’t use them (and remember nothing makes them use the credit agencies). Thus, a credit agency is really a just one form of reputation. You may not agree with it, and you may not find it useful, but that will also be true of the plethora of reputations that are already starting to emerge.

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