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How One Web 'Reputation' System Failed

Startup Opinity ran out of investment money before its idea caught on

Managing reputations is an intricate business. There are hard-to-answer questions about what constitutes a reputation, who creates one, how information will be used, and how to ensure reputation measures match reality.

All that complexity was the undoing of startup Opinity. Founded in 2004, the company set out to consolidate reputations from eBay and other commerce sites, user ratings generated by Opinity, and other information into a person's reputation "score" for use on the Web.

That proved too difficult, so Opinity adjusted its approach: Users could create personal profiles, including information like education and professional background, which Opinity verified against public data for a fee. If users gave Opinity their user names and passwords to other sites, Opinity could pull content such as Flickr photos, eBay ratings, and bookmarks into their profiles. If people didn't want to share their passwords, Opinity gave them strings of letters to post on their user pages to verify profiles were truly theirs. Additionally, Opinity let users rate other users and verify information by tagging their profiles with descriptive words like "funny" or "dentist."

Perhaps most importantly, Opinity users could choose what information they shared, so they didn't have to reveal they went to a party school or were slow to ship eBay items they sold. The idea was that partners would include links to Opinity profiles on their own sites or otherwise use the information found there to vet users.

But Opinity had trouble getting partners to buy in, and ad support never materialized. After an initial round of venture capital and partnerships with a few other startups like commerce site Edgeio and identity verification service Trufina, Opinity went into what former VP Bill Washburn calls "suspended animation."

Opinity isn't completely kaput. The company holds out hope for further investment and larger partners like eBay, which was resistant to Opinity's early overtures. But Opinity's phone number no longer works, its CEO left for Google, and Washburn is no longer looking after the company either. New users can sign up, but they won't get any support.

"Opinity was just too early," Washburn says. "The identity elements didn't get adopted fast enough." It was a setback for online reputation systems--and for Opinity's reputation, too.

Return to the story:
Web Credibility: Hard Earned, Harder To Prove

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