To get us started, it might be useful to give some background on the project. How did it all begin?
As usual, it began with confusion. Over the past three years, we have been researching various issues of governance and accountability in digitally networked environments here at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society. During that time, we have been increasingly puzzled by the rise of web-based review and rating schemes – all those websites and mechanisms that generate public assessments of people, products and services and carry them out into the world.
While eBay‘s seller feedback and Amazon‘s product reviews are often mentioned as the archetypes, the idea has spread across a range of industries and targets. These include hotels, movies, restaurants and beer, but also lawyers, teachers, drivers, freelancers, dates, haircuts and knitting. Search engines like Google or Bing rate and rank the relevance of websites with considerable implications. And even public services have mobilised the idea more recently in areas like health care or policing.
While these schemes differ in their focus, scope and methodology, the claims made about them are surprisingly consistent. They variously make hidden qualities transparent, hold individuals and organisations to account or facilitate ‘democratic’ engagement of those who would not otherwise have a voice. Accountability, transparency and participation – against the backdrop of this trinity, it is hardly surprising that web-based review and rating schemes have become so popular.
Interestingly, not everyone shares this enthusiasm. While some have welcomed the development as an innovative solution to public problems, others have criticised the forced exposure and alleged lack of accuracy and accountability. In the case of the travel review website TripAdvisor, for example, hotel owners recently threatened to sue its operators, mobilised a counter-scheme identifying ‘guests from hell’ or struck back against individual reviewers. In the shadow of web search, a fascinating industry emerged around the idea of search engine optimisation and other attempts to reach Page 1 of search results.
So where does this lead? A new form of distributed control and peer-produced transparency – or an audit society on steroids?
The goal of this project is to tackle these questions head-on. Over the next few months, we will work together with managers, designers and users to develop a website that will allow people to share their experience and learn about the implications of web-based reviews and ratings. Turning the idea of public assessment on its head, we hope to generate some interesting discussions about the utility and ethics of these schemes and support both operators and users in their day-to-day work.
Of course, you are more than welcome to join us in this effort.