We Can See the Reputation Market's Event Horizon From Here

TRUSTThe future of personal branding can be viewed quite darkly. In that future, you will be crushed by the banality of your own self-promotion. But here’s a question-what if the phenomena of endless marketing of your own personal self persists, and is not a VC flash in the pan, a burp on the road to SkyNet? Are you sufficiently personally branded? Will you be left behind?

Well, yes. You will be left behind. The Reputation Economy is soon to become less conjecture and more pain in the ass. Which means that the Whuffie Event Horizon is upon us. But it’s not too late to at least look busy.

That’s some scary jargon. Even “economy” is foreboding, and it’s more ominous to see the organizing principles of the movements of capital and labor applied to what other people think of you. It’s not really economics per se-it’s a high tech collision between two of the greatest scientific advances of the 20th century, marketing and publicity, a collision that paratroops into an economic context.

Imagine that “good will” was something that could be held and hugged and thrown at hobos. That’s the Reputation Economy. Your good will, the collection of positive associations that is associated with your name and person, becomes a commodity. Not that you can sell it (yet), but it is a short-hand for social standing, or leverage. Maybe once you tucked away a favor owed, so you didn’t waste it on something stupid. Now then imagine that as the rule and not the exception. And automated. And inevitable.

And the quantification of this Reputation we will call Whuffie, which was coined by novelist/Boinger Cory Doctorow in his 2003 novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. In the book, Whuffie is monitored, by technological means, and is an actual replacement for dollar bills. Doctorow posits a future cashless society in which free market precepts are obviated by a lack of scarcity of resources. Without scarcity, without the concept of a “buyer,” trade is conducted on the basis of accumulated good will. Not that that exact scenario is going to happen anytime soon, but Whuffie is a convenient and silly handle. All the nice things said about you, all the versions of third party approval social media provides, all the happy ripples thrown out by your very good reputation interfacing with the world-Whuffie.

So what to do? The path of least resistance is to submit. How many hours are there in the day? Exactly as many hours a day you need to spend updating, creating sticky personal content, inventing neologisms, propagating memes and generally hoarding your Whuffie. Times are tight right now, but who can accurately predict the tightness to come? And will you have enough Whuffie to lubricate yourself through tighter times? You think you know the answer to that question. You don’t. The answer is: you never have enough Whuffie, ever, and you will always need more. You are not Cory Doctorow. Your Whuffie is a finite resource. It’s no more difficult than devoting near-constant attention to an every-changing array of platforms and apps, and, on top of that, knowing when to jump into a specific pool (early) and when to hop out (a microsecond before it gets MySpaced). It is daunting, but you will have plenty of company, and you will spend your time wondering if this company has duly accepted you as a fellow Whuffie-miner. That should be comforting in its recursiveness, but comfort is not a commodity. Like Whuffie.

Alarmist? Well, in the sense that an alarm is being sounded. Panicking is your own problem, but remember that time panicking will detract from your time branding, unless you manage to make a post/Tweet/update out of it.

And check in! Don’t forget to check in, be it Foursquare, Gowalla, Facebook Places and whatever succeeds them. What’s the point of having everyone know what you’re doing if they don’t know where you are? Imagine all the places you could be the Mayor of-Dinghy Dogs! The Mall of America! The Missouri Department of Natural Resources! The Trump Whatever! It seems a bit stalky, but how can it really be stalky if you are advertising where you are? A stalker of your own would be a badge of honor. And just think of it as a harmless geolocative application, a superimposition of the Net onto real space, and not yet another retreat into high school social dynamics. It’s a lot less threatening, and a lot more William Gibson, that way. But get to it, before all the other social apps integrate a locative functionality, because you don’t want to be a late adapter. (Which is about the same thing as being an inappropriate-toucher, as far as the RE goes.)

Some of you may have a name that is either shared by many or shared by someone already occupying a portion of public space. (Google me if you’d like to learn about the Yankees farm system.) This is not fair. You didn’t get to pick your own name, after all. Why should you be Whuffie-challenged because of marketplace confusion.

Solution? Pick a new name. True, only the flaky did that, back in the day, but that was before all these ones and zeros were flying around through the ethers, and so adapt now and let everyone else wonder what flaky used to mean. And take a cue from intellectual property management, since it’s an adjacent field to this RE, and make up your new name from nothing, giving it distinctness and preeminent SEO. Rappers have been doing it for a decade, as have pharmaceuticals. Failing that, rip something out of context. The world might need a graphics designer named “Xantham,” a human resources manager named “C-clamp,” or even an acquisitions librarian named “So Long And Thanks For All The Fish.”

And if this all seems too much work, and does not pass the cost-benefit analysis, you can Pynchon it. Or, as they say, “IRL” it. Be excellent, succeed in your field and let your success be your team of bodyguards. Go off-grid, erase every last vestige of your footprint (minus a yearbook photo or two), be quiet and enjoy whatever it is that anonymous people enjoy-family? Friends? Rhubarb pie? You will not be able to derive the benefit of the RE grab-ass, of the minute-by-minute liked/not-liked, but then again you will enjoy the freedom from all that. If there is a downside, it is that you have to be actually talented, as this kind of success cannot be faked, or seduced with intrinsic popularity. Then again, there’s no quicker way to find out.

But before we load up the storm cellar with canned goods and cute animal videos, is it possible to stop this approach of the Whuffie Event Horizon, to forestall this creeping menace? No. Sorry. And you’d surmise that the reason why we can’t avoid this is technology, and its tendency to not only advance but to fill any negative space as it does.

But technology is just a precondition; it’s the sky being blue. What powers the WEH to the point of imminence is in fact us, all of us, and our exceptionalism, our post-modern vanity, which is no longer a privilege but a right. At some point after the Baby Boom, maybe when they were ripping the jungle gyms out of playgrounds and ramping up production on child safety helmets, every single person became suddenly destined. We were not going to have a quiet life working down at the plant, putting the kids through college, maybe buying a boat or an Italian espresso machine. We were going to accomplish something. We were going to stand out. So now that we are all destined to be superlative, organizing the systems of how we stand out will crystallize.

This is not necessarily a fame instinct, though that is rampant too. This is more of a public-sphere instinct. This is taking what used to be one’s affinity group and blowing it out. It’s not exhibitionism. It’s amplification. It’s a novel way that friends are now made. And since it’s not going anywhere, we are staring into the business end of the WEH.

What are your chances? Very good. You are exceptional. Sadly, for everyone else, it’s looking pretty bleak. Whuffie’s got to come from somewhere, and the magnitude of your personal achievement will suck all the air out of the room, creating a vacuum in which the flame of everyone else’s awesome will not burn. It’s a good thing you’re you, and not them.

The odd aspect of the choice of the term “Whuffie” is that, going back to Doctorow, in the world he created where abundance has leveraged capitalism into something new, death has also been defeated. Take a dirt nap and you are rebooted. This is a condition that does not exist now, so maybe it’s spurious to superimpose Whuffie over current times. Or maybe mortality is the enabling condition of the RE, since Reputation is just really a low-bandwidth version of immortality-and we’ve finally found an ingenious way to commodify it.



Brent Cox is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY.