The problem with social currency

Social Currency

The social community was buzzing yesterday about a blatant and unapologetic exploitation of one of our newest methods of expression. The Atlantic reported a few days ago that Plussem.com has been offering to sell “+1”s to websites, in order to boost their visibility and prominence in Google+ and, presumably, in Google’s search results. With the +1 button intended to help cut through the clutter and search spam, and better highlight the sites and content that people actually care about, this +1 prostitution almost imparts a sense of hopelessness that the web will ever be anything but a constantly evolving “wild west”. It also highlights the biggest problem with the idea of “social currency”.

In theory, social currency is incredibly powerful. With the right technology, the billions of humans on earth should be able to efficiently sort, rank and evaluate the world’s information and make it easier and easier for each of us to find what we want. Unfortunately, that efficiency isn’t necessarily what each individual wants. Rather than optimizing the system for society, they want it optimized for themselves. That creates a natural incentive to “game the system”. From questionable direct mail solicitations, to email spammers, to black-hat SEOs, these games devalue and debase the system for the sole benefit of a few individuals.

Why can’t we fix this? Wasn’t the +1 button supposed to offer a chance for a better, cleaner web? The problem with social currency is that there is very little downside to spending it foolishly. I can go out and +1 sites all day long with very little cost or potential detriment to myself. It’s the same problem the government has in managing actual currency. They aren’t scared that they are going to run out because they can always print more. Can you imagine how much more carefully government spending would be managed if there was a real bottom to the cash barrel? Beyond the unlimited supply, there are no consequences to the way you bestow your blessings.

I love the idea of social validation and weighting to help clean up search results, but there has to be a feedback mechanism for a system like this to actually work. Think about the scene in Donnie Brasco where Al Pacino has to vouch for Johnny Depp. Pacino is giving him a +1, but if he turns out to be a bad recommendation, Pacino will be six feet under. THAT is the type of motivation that creates a real social validation system. So far, I haven’t seen any good feedback mechanism in any of the major social platforms.

The closest I’ve seen is the recommendation system on LinkedIn. Even there, if I make a recommendation and someone feels that the person I’ve recommended doesn’t live up to the recommendation, all that does is tarnish my reputation with that one person. It does not transfer across to the rest of the population, or lower the impact of my other recommendations (or even that one) in the future.

For a system of social validation to truly work for the greater population, it must be massively entwined, and it must have both carrots AND sticks. What do you think? Use some of that social currency and give me some feedback.

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