Thinking lazily about reputation and relationships

A few days ago, @shannonpaul referred to something @kdpaine had said, discovered via @kanter. And it was this:

“the word “reputation” is so 1990. today it’s all about relationships”

Maybe it’s the Calcuttan in me, but I guess I’ve always thought that way. For me, it’s always been all about relationships. Relationship before conversation before transaction. But as the Cluetrain guys so elegantly pointed out, that sequence had been lost in the West, and society had become more about Transaction First, Conversation only if it is going to help Transaction, Relationship only if it is going to help Conversation (and therefore Transaction).

No surprise then that when Customer Relationship Management systems came out, they tended not to be about managing customer relationships, but about managing transactions and exploiting the customer. Because they were deeply rooted in Transaction First.

Back to reputation and relationships. Thinking about what K D Paine said, I began to realise that the very concept of reputation differed between East and West. How? In three simple ways:

In the East, reputation was an aggregate of onymous statements. When people spoke about someone’s reputation, they said “According to Bharat’s uncle he is a reliable guy”, and stuff like that. It was tangible and lucid and, most importantly, related to real statements by real people. As against this, reputation in the West appears to have decayed into a collection of amorphous sayings by faceless disembodied ghosts, unattributed yet always quoted.

In the East, reputation was primarily about the good in a person rather than the bad. Sure, there were bad things said about people, but that was not the norm. “He comes from a good family, I know his father”. “She was a very good child at school, I remember her well”. You can rely on them in a pinch, it’s something that village is known for”. In contrast, Western concepts of reputation seem more to be about the bad rather than the good. In the same way as people say “Bad news sells”, there seems to be a bias in what passes for reputation, a bias towards weaknesses and criticisms.

The third difference is tied to this concept of good and bad aspects of reputation. In the East all reputation is shareable and gets shared. In the West, there is a tendency to hold back on good reputation things and share bad reputation things.

A common example is that of credit ratings and related areas. Banks tend to be willing to share “black” information, information about default, very willingly, but are much less willing to share “white” information, information about positive creditworthiness. [Yes I am aware of the racial stereotyping implied in terms like black information and black markets. But you know what? I have a life to lead, and tend not to waste my time worrying about minutiae like that. The sky could fall on my head. I could slip and fall in the shower.]

I’ve always wondered why this is, why people here are more willing to share “bad” information rather than “good”. One possibility, something I am kicking around in my head, is that it’s related to scarcity economics.

People who have a scarcity mindset are into hoarding, into information asymmetry, into secrets, into making things scarce. It is rare that people say good things about others. So why pass it on? It could have value by continuing to be scarce. Trade on it, execute a “transaction”. After all, that’s what life is about….. for people with scarcity mindsets.

Relationships are about abundance, not scarcity. Provided they are nonhierarchical, of course. That’s what the people who discovered network effects understood, that relationships scale differently, create value differently. Reputation is deeply intertwined with relationship, reputation is an embodiment of what your relationships say about you. So reputations should also be about abundance, not scarcity. And can enjoy network effects as well.

In the past, even in the West, this so-called “Eastern” concept of reputation was understood. Relationships did come first, then conversation, then transaction. It has been lost. Over the last twenty years or so, it is being re-found.

More later.

9 thoughts on “Thinking lazily about reputation and relationships”

  1. In fairness, you did say you were “Thinking lazily,” so maybe that accounts for some potentially unconnected dots. : ) I will just as lazily try to confuse things further.

    The premise seems to be that relationships are more important then reputations. But, as you properly – in my opinion – point out, “Reputation is deeply intertwined with relationship, reputation is an embodiment of what your relationships say about you.” (And in any case, I’m not sure what abundance vs. scarcity has to do in leading to the conclusion.)

    So… if reputation almost by definition precedes a relationship – or later impinges upon one’s perspective of a relationship – how is that archaic? For a moment, I’ll go back to the original quote… “the word “reputation” is so 1990. today it’s all about relationships”

    For starters, the fact that reputation became and remains a buzzy thing doesn’t mean relationships were any less important though the 90s. And just because more people are discovering social networks as a buzzy thing, (even though social nets pre-dated any form of online communication anyway), doesn’t make reputation passe.

    My lazily reached point? The particular buzzword that punditry seems to bemuse itself with pontificating upon as the Web 2.3457 think du jour doesn’t mean that there’s any real fire amidst the smoke. Or even if there is, it doesn’t mean that one has to or should declare something of importance dead simply because it was overhyped as hype.

    Outside the context of hierarchy or accident of geography or similar, relationships are generally by choice and somewhat purposeful. And either way, while it may be interesting for definitions and thought experiments to separate them, it’s rather foolish to discard declare something passe when it it is inextricably intertwined with the very thing you’re now saying is the next thing.

    In terms of the reputation services being more about the bad then the good; how are these not the same thing? Good/bad, half full/half empty is a matter of perspective. One could argue – perhaps weakly – that every marketing list sold is a list of “good” prospects for a product or service.

    Lastly, I’m all for your take on East vs. West in terms of seeming desirous of onymous sources. Our modern, mobile society can make that difficult. Sociologist Amitai Etzioni – in for example, The Limits of Privacy – discusses how some of this has come about. But suffice it to say, it’s related to the need for third party reputation management in a world where transactions happen with individuals’ far outside their tribe. So it might not be true that “Your reputation precedes you,” but… others can maybe check later if they feel the need.

  2. I was thinking lazily, yes, but I wanted to make three points. And I made them badly.

    one was to distinguish between eastern and western concepts of reputation. which I think i did OK at.

    the second was to argue that reputation and relationship *should be* deeply intertwined, that one depended on the other. I think i did a bad job of portraying this point.

    the third was to argue that what had happened in the west was that people managed somehow to separate reputation and relationship. And this I couldn’t even understand. this point I made an awful job of.

    so I will write a follow-up post and concentrate on that last point. sometime. sometime soon

    you make good points, thanks for stopping by.

  3. You were very nearly quoted this morning by an economist on BBC Radio 4’s “Start the week” programme, who observed that part of the world’s current financial problems stem from the fact that the relationships between debtors and creditors, previously mediated by banks in a fairly close way, had become stretched and spread out by so many intermediaries that they were now purely transactional. Conversations between people, with known reputations, probably made lending money a much safer business not very long ago.

  4. @norwin :-) there’s a whole pile of people out there who could do themselves a lot of good by just going out and buying Cluetrain!

  5. @kevin thanks for your comments and for the link. Your post triggered some other thoughts, as did some of the other comments, and I will try and follow up soon.

  6. I’m sorry it took me so long to respond to this post. I think this is a really fascinating approach and I love that you titled it “Thinking lazily…”

    I remember reading a collection of short stories by a female Bengali author named Bharati Mukherjee. Through a collection of short stories, she illustrated the tensions in relationships that were a result of cultural differences. One major takeaway I remember was that Americans are often seen as *emotionally lazy*. That much of the world’s criticism about our culture is that even our most intimate relationships are, at their core, transactional.

    I think it’s such an interesting and profound observation to make that social media could be bringing humanity into our transactions. It may even be ironic that technology is enabling this humanity to take a precedence.

    I hope you’re right. :)

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