Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Reading :: Building Web Reputation Systems

Building Web Reputation Systems
By F. Randall Farmer and Bryce Glass

Some time ago, an acquaintance in the Austin tech industry, Ian Strain-Seymour (@ifss on Twitter) suggested I begin Twitter-following a fellow he knew in graduate school, Bryce Glass (@soldierant), who was then working for Yahoo. So I did, based on that recommendation. Soon I realized that Bryce knew my frequent collaborator Bill Hart-Davidson (@billhd). At some point I mentioned to Bryce that I knew both of these guys, and he followed me back. Like me, Bryce doesn't follow that many people, but we both made the decision to follow each other based on what our trusted friends thought - that is, on each others' reputations.

Reputation is a critical factor in making web services worthwhile, since it allows us to make decisions we wouldn't otherwise be able to make and to accrue social capital we wouldn't otherwise be able to accrue - whether we're talking about goods (think's reviews), services (Yelp), or social networking (Twitter). And in the absence of more durable connections, when we need to develop swift trust, we look for different ways to judge the authority and ethos of the people with whom we connect. Bryce and his coauthor, F. Randall Farmer, tell us how to do this systematically.

I've blogged before about how Farmer and Glass handle reputation in terms of ethos claims, so I won't repeat that work here. Suffice it to say that although the authors are not rhetoricians, rhetoricians should read this book. Rhetoricians will recognize a claims structure that looks a lot like Toulmin's (see Ch.2), but is fitted for digital literacy and its many ephemeral, distributed connections. They'll learn a lot from the book's descriptions and case studies about what ethos looks like in digital environments -- and how to fine-tune reputation systems to keep them healthy, productive, accurate, and aligned with the purpose of the community.

The book not only covers vital ground, it also covers that ground gracefully: the book is highly readable and is full of useful examples and diagrams. Although some parts assume some basic knowledge of system design, readers shouldn't have trouble getting through the rest of the book or gathering the core messages.

Disclosure: I reviewed this book in manuscript form. And yes, I was smitten with it then too.

If you're a rhetorician who is trying to understand claims and ethos in digital literacy, this book is a must. If you're a rhetorician of any stripe, you still might want to pick it up. Highly recommended.


Bill said...

Great review, Clay. I agree with all you've said here about this really strong book.

One point of interest. My connection to Bryce is a shared set of educational experiences in our formative years, including a few influential professors of rhetoric in common (notably, Joseph Petraglia). Bryce has been a student of rhetoric, and in fact graduated from the Masters program at Georgia Tech. I won't tar him with the rhetorician brush...but he might own that. :)

Clay Spinuzzi said...

True - forgot about that! Thanks for the connect.

Bryce said...

Guilty as charged! And… thanks for reminding me, Bill. I should probably send Joseph a copy of the book!