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Karma wants to rate how sketchy you are online

Trust no one.


AJ Dellinger


Posted on May 29, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 5:36 pm CDT

I am not to be trusted. At least that’s what Karma tells me.

The new startup, just out of closed testing and out into public beta last week, aims to be an online reputation tracker. It gathers reviews, feedback, and other comments from a wide array of sharing economy sites, crunches it all up, and generates a score that reflects a user’s behavior. It’s somewhere between Klout and a credit score but for all of your online wheeling and dealing.

Karma CEO and co-founder Zach Schiff-Abrams told the Daily Dot the idea was born out of the frustration of starting fresh online. After the passing of their dog, Schiff-Abrams and his girlfriend decided to use DogVacy to become “doggy grandparents” to pups in place of a need to stay.

“I’d spent years building up a reputation as a seller on eBay and as a guest on Airbnb, but when we first joined, it took a long time for us to get our first review,” he said. “It was frustrating because I couldn’t represent my Airbnb or eBay reviews to anyone and had to start from scratch.”

The idea of Karma is to take all that time spent building up good standing on one site and allow it to carry over across the web, creating a sort of unified meter for trustworthiness. “In an age where we use peer-to-peer services more than ever before, my cofounders and I wanted to solve this problem in trying to determine whom you can trust online,” Schiff-Abrams explained. “We’re hoping this platform will make it easier to be a good person by letting you take your reputation anywhere.”

With Karma, gaining trust means giving trust, and you have to give a whole lot to the service. Since it’s judging you based on what you do on your various accounts, you’ll have to link just about everything imaginable to Karma and allow it to dig through that data. The more accounts you connect, the higher your score climbs; I connected an Airbnb account with no transactions and it increased my score.

Schiff-Abrams said that’s a bug—”Hence why we’re still in beta!” he added—but it’s also one that works to the benefit of Karma. A sterling reputation on one site might be enough for you, but the more data Karma holds, the better for it. It’s a cynical view of the product, but it’s also standard practice for most sites: if you’re sharing data with it, it is sharing that data with others.

In the case of Karma, the company anonymizes the information before shuffling it off to advertisers. For affiliate businesses, it’s a bit more open in its sharing. In Karma’s privacy policy, it states Karma “may sell or provide products or services to you through or in connection with the Services,” and “in connection with the operation, promotion, advertising or marketing of our Services, we may provide certain of our partners with Personal Information (e.g., your name or Karma username) and other content or information related to you.”

Electronic Frontier Foundation Staff Lawyer Lee Tien told the Daily Dot that none of the language was out of the ordinary. He even commended Karma for a line of its privacy policy that reads as particularly jarring.

At a point in the policy, it states, “We may choose to buy or sell assets. In these types of transactions, customer information is typically one of the business assets that would be transferred. Also, if we (or our assets) are acquired, or if we go out of business, enter bankruptcy, or go through some other change of control, Personal Information could be one of the assets transferred to or acquired by a third party.”

Tien explained that while this may read as surprising, it’s actually a step that most startups don’t take in their privacy policies even though they likely partake in those types of transactions. They simply don’t disclose it.

On the user-facing end of the service, the score Karma creates can still feel like a mystery. Behind the number is a complicated algorithm that takes into account every miniscule action it can find on sites that you grant access to. Schiff-Abrams said Karma finds information through social accounts including LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook; online reviews from supported peer-to-peer sites including Airbnb, Etsy, Craigslist, DogVacay, RelayRides, and Vayable; and “vouches” from other people on Karma.

“We examine only whatever a user has set to public data on each platform,” he explained. “On social we look at the number of connections and recency of activity as examples.”

While it may only look at public data, Karma does occasionally seem to overreach when asking for permission to take a look at accounts. In connecting with Etsy, for example, the permissions requested included the ability to create and delete posts on the marketplace.

Schiff-Abrams offered an explanation. “Often with developer APIs and extension access, the language is broad and applies to all extensions or apps using the API.” He also assured that Karma “will not create or delete marketplace listings on Etsy.” But you do still have to give it permission to do so, which may be too much access to surrender for some.

A weight is applied to all activity as Karma quantifies your online behavior: recent reviews are worth more than old ones, services with more interaction (Airbnb) are worth more than simple, near-anonymous transactions (eBay). Vouches from other trustworthy people improve the score, and users are limited to six vouches in total, creating a scarcity to the endorsement.

It all boils down to making sure you behave well online. “The more transparent and accountable you are across all interactions, the higher you score on a ratio basis,” Schiff-Abrams said.

To some, the whole idea of Karma may make your skin crawl. It’s antithetical to anonymity, the internet’s favorite means of protection. It makes all your behavior public and shames you into acting “proper” online, dinging you points if you don’t abide by the rules. The concept feels a little stuffy and, if you’re familiar with David Eggers’ The Circle, dances dangerously close to the line of parody. In the novel, anonymity has done away with to improve public decency and scores become an obsession of the main character.

Plus, it’s not easy to amass a good rating. I’m not an avid user of online marketplaces—I have a couple eBay and Etsy purchases but I’ve never tried Airbnb or similar services—so my score sits in the 50s despite none of my existing reviews being poor. This is intentional, according to Schiff-Abrams. “People prefer the idea of bettering their reputation, and our goal is to make it easier to be a good person. Having a score that goes low to high ties into that.”

If you make more purchases on Etsy than Amazon and stay in more Airbnbs than hotels, there may be value in Karma. But the service is all about partaking in the new sharing and peer-to-peer economy. If you’re not partaking, you’re punished. And if you’re punished, it becomes harder to partake. Karma might work on the principle of what goes around comes around, but in this case it seems more like a vicious cycle.

Screenshot via Karma

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*First Published: May 29, 2015, 10:00 am CDT