This Site Can Tell How Trustworthy You Are

Photo: Courtesy Karma.
Since taking the classifieds online, sites like Craigslist, eBay, and Airbnb have enabled billions of interactions and transactions among users. But, every time we meet up with a seller or a potential buyer, we can't help but wonder... Is this person trustworthy? Are we going to get what we've paid for, or get ripped off? A new site called Karma aims to quantify our trustworthiness with individual scores.

Like Klout, which ranks your social media influence, Karma asks that you connect a variety of sites and social media services, then performs some algorithmic magic and spits out a score, 0 to 100, of how trustworthy you are online. In an ideal world, such a numerical ranking would be incredibly useful in our sharing economy. At a glance, it would provide an accurate measure of whether someone is who they claim to be, and whether their previous transactions went smoothly. But, in reality, there are numerous practical hurdles that make this Karma score itself less than trustworthy.

Karma takes into account three main factors: reviews, social, and what it calls "vouches." Karma explains that reviews from peer-to-peer transactions make up the bulk of your Karma score (and, the more recent the review, the more heavily it's weighed). Homesharing and dog sitting sites give more karma points than auction sites. Next, your level of social activity online can boost your score by proving you are who you say you are. Lastly, vouches from other Karma users (each is given six to hand out) can boost your score. 

So, if you keep to yourself online, your score is going to lean closer to 0. That's particularly true if you don't post many reviews, or no one has reviewed you, in online transactions.

When we first hooked up ours with Facebook, Twitter, and Airbnb, we scored a measly, flunk-worthy 34 — in the red zone of Karma's red, yellow, green, and blue scale of bad to good. According to its metrics, having "only" roughly 650 Facebook friends counts as not having many friends. Ever heard the phrase "quality is better than quantity," Karma? After adding Foursquare, the score bumped up to 37 (out of the red and into the yellow). In a pie chart breakdown, Facebook made up 81% of the score, Foursquare 10%, and Twitter 9%. By contrast, in connecting as many accounts as he could, Gizmodo's Adam Clark Estes scored a barely-passing 77 (in the green zone). 

Karma offers up this score to the services you connect with, so the next time you score an Airbnb rental, the renter would be able to see your number, kind of like a credit score. But, rather than seeing only your 100% score you may have on eBay or Etsy, for example, those sites will see this combined, (likely) lower score. 

In addition to being a dubious metric in actually judging your online reputation (really, is 650 Facebook friends that low??), Karma is also questionable in terms of privacy. In its FAQ, Karma explains that "User security is of the utmost importance to our team," which, while a noble sentiment, doesn't mean a whole lot. If you connect every single account you can to Karma, this site now has a boatload of personal, identifiable information about you at their disposal. They know your likes, your dislikes, what you post to Facebook and Twitter, where you frequent on Foursquare, where you vacationed, what items you tend to buy and sell. Advertisers would kill for that sort of aggregated data on individual users. So would identity thieves. (However, we should note that just because Karma has access to this information, doesn't mean that it is being copied or stored on its own servers.)

Still, if it gains traction, and everyone connects everything to this service, a Karma score could become a useful metric in judging someone else's reputation online. At the least, it could save you some Googling and Twitter stalking. 
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