The Reputation Economy

THE SHARING ECONOMY thus intensifies the neoliberal belief in the power of markets that are unregulated and underregulated by the state to improve the efficiency of society’s performance by using competition and consumer choice as a way of expressing public decisions—in this case, regarding the funding of higher education.[1] If you are a poor teacher in this economy, the market forces you to take responsibility for being so and either improve or quit. State regulation is unnecessary—as is institutional intervention. The same applies if you teach a subject that proves to be unpopular with students. (Any anger or critique is directed accordingly: inward onto the self rather than outward onto social, political, or economic factors. It’s not the system of higher education that’s the problem; it’s me!) Indeed, the development of preemptive technologies means that in the future, the market may even be able to discipline and control you before you have done anything wrong—and, what’s more, without you knowing it’s doing so. Some employers are already rejecting job candidates based on the browser they use when electronically submitting their applications. This is because analysis of the relevant data has revealed to these companies that applicants who use a less common browser to do so statistically make for better employees. The Open University in the United Kingdom has even developed an algorithm capable of predicting a student’s final grade based on her performance during just the first week of a degree course. Significantly, it takes into account factors such as “how enthusiastically students participate in online learning forums to improve their results.”[2]

It is not hard to see where a situation of the kind sketched here is likely to lead. Among the finely grained data gathered by any such platform capitalist higher education business will almost certainly be student ratings of the performance of individual teachers as compared to their peers: not just the kinds of evaluations students already provide of their professors concerning how easy it is to get good feedback, marks, and grades in their classes, for example, or the extent to which they are always on and available to answer student questions and respond rapidly to queries by e-mail, Facebook, or text message, no matter what time of day or night it is, but also how good they are at adapting to the social and emotional needs of students—even how upbeat, friendly, and fun they are (in the way Uber drivers are expected to be chatty).

According to research commissioned by the UCU in 2013, increasing numbers of U.K. academics are experiencing problems of mental health. No doubt belonging to a profession that attracts overachievers does not help. Nor does the fact that performance indicators encouraging self-monitoring, self-assessment, and self-comparison are more or less built into the career trajectory. Academics learn very early on just what kind of student evaluation and feedback is needed, and how many books, journal articles, and grants are required in their particular field, if they are to get that first full-time job, acquire tenure, achieve promotion, rise to chair—and what is more, they learn to accept this state of affairs as the norm. Now that continual benchmarking in terms of “excellence” has been introduced, academics are constantly asked to keep a measurable account of everything that happens in their working lives. This includes the number of keynote and plenary lectures they give, the visiting positions they hold, the classes and courses they teach, the leadership they display, and the amount of external income they generate, along with a host of other indicators of the significance, rigor, and originality of their research, its influence, and impact.

A couple of questions are worth raising here. Is all this auditing a way to manage academics in an era when, as Sarah Brouillette puts it in relation to the creative economy, “a spirit of opposition to assigned roles and an openness to change have become crucial facets of the ability to labor successfully” and produce the kind of innovation that leads to economic growth? In such circumstances, does one have to submit to the ceaseless (self-)scrutiny of the management protocols as “a marker of one’s commitment to one’s work” and self-exploitation?[3] Certainly it is a situation that appears to be at odds with the way the profession often operates according to something of a “celebrity” approach, whereby, in each field, only a relatively small number of thinkers are deemed “fashionable” on a given topic (i.e., those everyone must quote and cite, and whose work thus dominates reading lists and bibliographies). Or at least it does until one realizes just how effective this setup is in fostering an acceptance of high levels of intense, individualistic, masculine, neoliberal competition. As Angela McRobbie indicates, drawing on the example of the 9:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. working day Thomas Picketty maintains is required to have a successful academic career, it is a model of excellence based on the idea of the brilliant man: someone who can have an enjoyable family life only because he has a wife to provide large amounts of unrecognized domestic support in the form of shopping, cooking, cleaning, and childcare.[4]

The result is that many academics are indeed suffering from stress, anxiety, loneliness, psychological exhaustion, depression, and distress. Yet circumstances will grow markedly worse for this workforce—a high percentage of whom are already in an insecure position—if a shift to a for-profit sharing economy higher education ecosystem occurs, with its ever-present risk to individual teachers of their ratings falling, and even of their being suspended from the platform should they be unable to keep their scores and student acceptance ratio high enough. Such monitoring will be all the more stressful for being never ending, with no final judgment being arrived at—other than suspension or rejection. Rather, these rating systems will act as prods by which academics are motivated to continuously try to do better. In such a scenario, it will not be long before they begin to act like those microentrepreneurs on eBay who, because their service is constantly being rated, are desperate not to be given any negative feedback on their sales.[5]

That said, ratings systems are far from confined to the online world of platform capitalism. Nowadays, it is not unusual for those working in retail to ask in advance to be given positive feedback if their company has a policy of following up in-store purchases with online requests for customer feedback and a rating of the shopping experience, which almost invariably includes an assessment of the helpfulness of the assistant. In fact, it looks like most individuals in the future will have a reputation score, analogous to their credit rating, based on their online influence and behavior, social connections, and the degree to which they can be trusted, whether they are borrowing money, applying for a job, taking out health insurance, asking for a date, sharing a ride, posting a review, or just leaving a comment.

Again, this may appear something of an exaggeration—yet it, too, is already happening. In November 2014 an anonymous article appeared in the press. It was written by a woman in Germany who purchased tickets for a concert at the Glocke concert hall in Bremen. This woman, the governess of a school in possession of a perfect credit history, discovered that she was unable to arrange a place to stay in the city for the weekend through Airbnb because the website deemed that she had too few friends on Facebook. It turns out that she only had fifty, whereas she required at least one hundred to verify her online identity and prove she was real to Airbnb—and this despite having booked with a credit card and verified her offline identity by scanning in a copy of her driver’s license or passport.[6] A “person rating” app called Peeple—described by its developers as “a positive app for positive people”—has even been released that allows users to recommend and review individuals they know on a personal, professional, or romantic basis using a positive–neutral–negative rating system. And before you laugh, such ratings, whereby a person’s character is turned into a form of currency, may prove to be increasingly important, because, as Michael Fertik, founder and CEO of Reputation.com, emphasizes, your reputation is tied to that of others in your networks. “The more often your friends default on debt,” for example, “the more likely you are to default on debt as well.”[7] So if you are thinking of taking out a mortgage and know someone with money troubles, you may want to reconsider your relationship.

Not surprisingly, a number of companies have already been set up to manage people’s reputations for them—at a price. (Reputation.com charges a minimum of US$1,050/£700 a year.) They do so by showing you “what keywords to put in your resume . . . and LinkedIn profile to ensure that you come up at the top of recruiters’ and potential employers’ search results.”[8] They also bombard sites such as Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr for you with positive—and mostly bland—content to “create false trails and digital smoke screens.” It turns out adopting an interest in cats and top-forty chart music is particularly helpful in this respect. As a result, anything negative or that “doesn’t match how you want to be perceived” moves down the rankings of content search engines, making it harder to find and so far less visible.[9] Fifty-three percent of people only pay attention to the first two search results, according to Google, while 89 percent don’t make it to the second page.

In the future, are academics going to have to manage their reputations too? Are we going to have to put a lot of work into performing sociality with our colleagues, students, peers, and friends on Facebook, Twitter, and Academia.edu to ensure that we maintain a good reputation score?[10] Will we similarly have to feed these platforms with a stream of vanilla, on-message content—whatever the academic equivalent of cat pictures is—so as to make anything potentially controversial or overly negative more difficult for platform capitalism’s algorithms to discover and highlight?[11]