I just had the pleasure of watching a fascinating online lecture about how the most important currency of the 21st Century is likely to be not liquidity or credit-worthiness, but reputation. The lecturer was a brilliant young author and business consultant named Rachel Botsman; she was giving a TED Talk entitled “The Currency of the New Economy is Trust?” I can’t recommend it highly enough.
In the late 1990s, I had an idea for a new business called OnMoney. It was going to be a single online destination where people could maintain all their financial information in one place. In other words, a terrifically convenient service that would empower consumers. I thought it was a great idea, but I was wrong. It didn’t work, and Ms. Botsman’s TED Talk gets at the heart of why. Back in the 1990s, no one was going to trust a single financial firm to host all their most sensitive information. But as Ms. Botsman points out, it’s a different story today. Sharing this kind of sensitive financial information online is now commonplace – think of websites like Mint.com. Even more interesting is that through web-based businesses like Airbnb, WhipCar, Spinlister, and DogVacay, we’re sharing possessions that are just as (if not even more) personal: a room in our house, our car or bike, even our pets.
And more than simply creating marketplaces (and markets) where none existed before, the Internet is creating a currency of reputations. As someone who loves free markets, I can tell you that this currency was not created or regulated by a government. Rather, it sprang organically from the free market. In fact, the government’s only role in any of this was to help launch the Internet – that is, to establish the infrastructure that has permitted free enterprise to flourish and, to borrow a phrase Ms. Botsman uses, to create “micro-entrepreneurs.”