Blockchain Verification will Peg You to an Online Reputation

The internet is moving from anonymity to duplicity.

Anonymity has been a hallmark of online life since the internet’s early days. Freed of reputational risk, people could easily watch dirty videos and make cutting comments to each other. More recently, online reputation systems have become prominent. Services like Uber and social media websites like Reddit developed reputation systems to encourage good behavior. Even if I don’t care about my personal relationship with others on Reddit, I need to cultivate a good reputation to enjoy full use of the service. However, these reputations are siloed; what I say on Reddit does not reach my Uber driver.

Simultaneously, online activities have become weightier and separate from the physical world. It’s becoming possible to work and do business using a pseudonym not linked to one’s physical-world identity. Big investment in immersive “metaverse” technologies foreshadow further moves toward consequential business being conducted solely on the internet.

The next step of developing reputation systems is here: blockchain authentication. It’s the same technology that allows NFTs (non-fungible tokens) to appear across many sites. With blockchain authentication, reputation accrued on one service can transfer to another.

Services that add new users every day with siloed reputation systems must be sufficiently friendly to users with no reputation. That is, a Twitter user with no history cannot be treated with too much suspicion. Maybe it’s a new user or a longtime lurker. But if cross-service reputation services become ubiquitous, barriers to entry for low-reputation users can be raised like they are in the physical world. By analogy, lenders can treat borrowers with no credit history severely—exactly because each person only starts adult life once.

One application of this idea is in identifying and curbing inauthentic speech on the internet. An uncomfortable share of online interactions these days seem to involve troll farms and bots. Already, the primary way of detecting these inauthentic actors is based on shallow or inconsistent past behavior (reputation). By increasing importance of reputation for online activities and increasing the cost of developing a reputation, it will become easier to filter out fakes.

Another application is the potential for assembling professional reputation via online activities. In the physical world, each human only has one face, and movement between physical locations is expensive. It’s hard to maintain multiple separate identities. Most physical world activities create substantial risk of being linked to one’s true identity. Online, that’s not true; one person will always be able to maintain multiple online personas with separate reputations.

Online-only reputations are also transferable. Stories like the Parent Trap or the Prince and the Pauper are the exception to prove that physical world identities cannot be shared; the physically identical characters transfer identities between each other but are always eventually caught. In contrast, The Princess Bride (1987) tells a story of the Dread Pirate Roberts, an identity shared sequentially between multiple pirates, who pass the fearsome reputation along as each one retires. Fittingly, the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts was chosen by Ross Ulbricht to operate Silk Road, an online black market, from 2011 to 2013. The identity of Q—of the QAnon conspiracy—is believed to have been shared between multiple authors based on textual analysis. models, who are paid by clients for personal interactions, often hire workers to chat and share media under the same identity.

In this vein, a friend of mine completed a full online MBA program on behalf of another person for pay. Both parties to the transaction seem happy with the outcome.

If online-only activities are to be used in credentialling, new systems will have to evolve. Either to link one’s fixed, physical identity to their online identities, or to tolerate the uncertainty of potential identity transfers. Even workers not interested in deception will have to decide which activities to associate with which identity. Users will be able to develop bodies of work in isolation from their main identity and later choose whether to merge these personas by revealing the link.

Solutions do exist to link physical identity to online identity, but they have shortcomings. Important tests are commonly administered in a dedicated test-taking center, like those offered by Prometric and Pearson VUE. Test takers have to present a physical ID and sit in a physical room to take the online test. This works for high-stakes certifications but is not economical for linking entire bodies of work to a physical identity. Twitter offers user authentication for some accounts, signified with a blue check mark on the user profile, and the Chinese government requires that social media companies authenticate their users’ physical identities (although users can still utilize pseudonyms for their public-facing profiles). However, this approach to user authentication only confirms that the physical person was involved in a body of work, not that they were solely responsible.

Written on September 3, 2022