Rating, Reputation, Conformance and Compliance

China has made obedience to the State a game. A new tool called Sesame Credit gives users a rating based on their compliance to ‘good behaviour’, using data from social networks and connected services:

If you post pictures of Tiananmen Square or share a link about the recent stock market collapse, your Sesame Credit goes down. Share a link from the state-sponsored news agency about how good the economy is doing and your score goes up.

Commenters in the West predictably see this as an example of oppressive government, seemingly without the self-awareness to know that we are already practising obedience—the difference being that we conform in order to fit private services, not the state.

From eBay to Uber to AirBNB, rating systems are used to create compliance to be a ‘good fit’ to the service. As a user, if your score isn’t high enough, you’re more likely to be turned down for a rental or a car journey. As Matt Webb tweeted:

The blessed relief of riding in a black cab and knowing you don’t need to work for that 5* rating from the driver.

But it’s worse for an Uber driver, where if you don’t keep a sufficiently high rating you can lose your job entirely. Josh Dzieza’s article, The Rating Game, describes the problems this creates:

When Judge Edward Chen denied Uber’s motion for summary judgement on the California drivers’ class action suit, he seized on the idea that ratings aren’t just a customer feedback tool — they represent a new level of monitoring, far more pervasive than any watchful boss. Customer ratings, Chen wrote, give Uber an “arguably tremendous amount of control over the ‘manner and means’ of its drivers’ performance.”

This has a huge chilling effect: as well as the potential loss of service or livelihood, compliance forces conformity of personality. You have to keep your head down to get on:

Several drivers said the best way to behave is like a servant. “The servant anticipates needs, does them effortlessly, speaks when spoken to, and you don’t even notice they’re there,” said a driver in Sacramento.

In the reputation economy, the best way to get by is to be blandly pleasant. As Bret Easton Ellis put it in Living in the Cult of Likability:

The reputation economy depends on everyone maintaining a reverentially conservative, imminently practical attitude: Keep your mouth shut and your skirt long, be modest and don’t have an opinion.

In China, keeping a good Sesame Credit score will give real world advantages — and consequences:

High scores will grant users benefits “like making it easier to get the paperwork you need to travel or making it easier to get a loan”. There have even been rumours about implementing penalties for low scores “like slower internet speeds, or restricting jobs a low scoring person is allowed to hold.”

At the height of the popularity of the reputation ranking tool Klout, some employers stated a minimum Klout score as a requirement for applying for a role with their company. That didn’t last, thankfully, but the China state are showing that it’s an idea that may well make a comeback.

If we don’t immediately start questioning the desirability of the reputation economy, we could end up with a very negative scenario: at best, a culture of bland conformity; and at worst a system of mass compliance.


Also published on Medium.