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L. Neil Smith's
Number 570, May 16, 2010

"Prepare for the future by getting to it"

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Community and Reputation,
Network Effects

by Curt Howland

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Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

I am repeatedly asked how a network of reputation might work in the "real world", and I've been giving some thought to the matter.

The problem seems to be that the best descriptions of how reputation might work are, well, "fiction". Some of those to whom I refer such works as L. Neil Smith's The Probability Broach, a very accessible text (and online graphic novel) which includes a well considered system of private adjudication and reputation, berate my suggestion because it's speculative fiction. How someone can ask how something might work, and then object when it's advanced as "how this might work", eludes me.

Could it be that, having been promised for so long and so often that the next elected politician, or the next government program, will absolutely work and save the day from disaster caused by earlier politicians and government programs, anyone who doesn't make such a claim is instantly thought of as not even worth the effort of considering?

Marc Stiegler's Earthweb envisions a world where "the Internet" has become far more pervasive than it has already. Public encryption "brands" are used universally to confirm people's identities, enable anonymous "cash" payments, and services that record and maintain the reputations of such "brands" are themselves a thriving business.

After all, if someone cheats, the cheated tells everyone, publicly, and the cheater loses his reputation.

I've recently been involved in a research project, where the researcher asked for opinions on "the community" in terms of Free and Open Source Software. If you are not certain what I mean, think "Linux".

This "community" is really a collection of communities large and small with little connection between them. They are all entirely voluntary, and all operate substantially on reputation between people who may have never met in person. A project with a major figure who is abrasive gets less of a community around it than one with a friendly "benevolent dictator". It is my opinion that the main reason the Linux kernel so quickly became the poster child, and 800 lbs gorilla, of F/OSS projects is that Linus Torvalds is a genuinely nice guy, as are the other primary Linux developers.

There are two kinds of F/OSS software project: The stand-alone program, and the "distribution".

The "distribution" is a collection of stand-alone programs that are configured to play nicely together, usually considered complete only when it includes everything needed to get a computer user and their system up and running. As you can imagine, distributions vary in size from "Damn Small" to "everything plus five different sizes of kitchen sink."

Coordination of projects on such vastly different scales would seem unlikely to be using the same core principle, and yet it all boils down to interest. Projects exist only because people are interested in them. More people doesn't "bog down" a project, it is enhanced by them. While larger user bases in proprietary terms means greater and greater support costs because of centralized control, in non-proprietary environments people help each other. Problems are quickly isolated and fixes communicated not as "hundreds of calls to the support center", but as specific problems pre-vetted by the user communities. The fix might very well be included in the problem report, due to the fact that when source code is available there will be individuals of sufficient skill and interest able to examine and figure out what is going wrong before the primary developers may even know a problem has occurred.

A user is not just a user, nor the developer just a developer. All are members of a community of interested people.

Does the Debian project, of two thousand plus developers spread out world-wide, constitute a "large" organization? There is a Debian Constitution, rules for conduct, the Debian Free Software Guidelines to define just what can be included in the distribution, yearly elections for a president, even a "commons" of infrastructure in the servers used for building the distribution and managing core communications. It would seem to me that this does qualify as a "large" organization, and it exists entirely through voluntary cooperation and reputation.

The Free State Project has evolved a reputation system as well. In the years since its founding, one person has been made "outlaw" due to their actions with others of the FSP, where people spontaneously ceased to have anything to do with him, and he left never to be seen again.

I believe that reputation is far more integral even in the "real world" of our present day to day lives than those who question its value in a purely civil society can grasp, because they're not looking. It may very well have always been this way.

In a DoD paper titled "Crisis Communication Strategies" which I found in Google's page cache when looking for this case, the 1982 Tylenol scare, where some twisted animal put poison in apparently un-opened packages of Tylenol and put them back on store shelves, the following appears:

"Johnson & Johnson chairman, James Burke, reacted to the negative media coverage by forming a seven-member strategy team. The team's strategy guidance from Burke was first, "How do we protect the people?" and second "How do we save this product?" The company's first actions were to immediately alerted [sic] consumers across the nation, via the media, not to consume any type of Tylenol product. They told consumers not to resume using the product until the extent of the tampering could be determined. Johnson & Johnson, along with stopping the production and advertising of Tylenol, withdraw all Tylenol capsules from the store shelves in Chicago and the surrounding area. After finding 2 more contaminated bottles Tylenol realized the vulnerability of the product and ordered a national withdraw of every capsule (Broom, 1994).

"By withdrawing all Tylenol, even though there was little chance of discovering more cyanide laced tablets; Johnson & Johnson showed that they were not willing to take a risk with the public's safety, even if it cost the company millions of dollars. The end result was the public viewing Tylenol as the unfortunate victim of a malicious crime (Broom, 1994)."

At the time that it happened, seeing those commercials myself, I realized just how important it was to J&J that they save their company's reputation. They did it by being seen to put the public good before the company good, which in fact was exactly the same thing.

Reputation works. As von Mises wrote in The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, where government does not interfere, the consumer is the ultimate sovereign. Anyone who does not satisfy the wants of consumers cannot profit, because without coercion there is no way to extract tribute. People either pay willingly for one's services, whatever they may be, or one fails. Such a symptom as "police brutality" could not exist without the State for more than one or two incidences before those "police" found themselves starving in destitution, unable to get customers.

All because of reputation.

Having considered the function of reputation that already exists in the "real world", I would strike Rothbard's "Delete The State" button faster and harder than ever, with even fewer concerns about possible negative repercussions. The "protective" functions of the State, the "good side" of the Force of Coercion, appears to me even more a sham, a false justification by the State itself taking credit for the results of civil society.

The Probability Broach

Marc Stiegler

Greg Kroah Hartman on the Linux Kernel

Damn Small Linux

Debian GNU/Linux

Crisis Communication Strategies & Johnson.htm (spaces and ampersand in original)

The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality

Leonard Read, as cited by Murray Rothbard...
"If there were a button on this rostrum, the pressing of which would release all wage-and-price controls instantaneously I would put my finger on it and push!"

...and Rothbard's version
Do You Hate The State?
"The abolitionist is a 'button pusher' who would blister his thumb pushing a button that would abolish the State immediately, if such a button existed."

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