Some people's futures are determined by popular vote: American Idol contestants, class presidents, and people who want to get gay married in California. But what if every aspect of our lives was determined by our reputation and popularity? Would our futures be better, or would the tyranny of the popular spin us into dystopia?
We look at ten science fiction stories where society is organized around reputation and popularity.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow: Down and Out's Bitchun Society has done away with poverty, scarcity, and capitalism, replacing it with the Whuffie economy. Your Whuffie score depends on how much respect people have for you, and to some extent, how much respect you garner from folks who disagree with you. You won't starve with a low Whuffie score, but life won't exactly be pleasant. Without Whuffie, you can't hang on to your possessions, you get lousy housing, and elevators won't even stop for you.
The Downside of Popularity: Even without money, people can still be bribed to do pretty awful things in exchange for a little esteem boost. And, as elections and reality television tell us, just because an idea is popular doesn't mean it isn't also terrible.
"The Guy Who Worked for Money" by Benjamin Rosenbaum": In the post-capitalist future, the world is controlled by Moody's. Well, not just Moody's, also Snopes and a rating system known as hUBBUB. Your followers can watch your every move and approve or disapprove of it one the fly. Instead of investing money, you invest time and emotional energy in your personal relationships. Get yourself a high hUBBUB rating and the world is your shiny cool kid oyster.
The Downside of Popularity: Economics becomes personal. Say the wrong thing at a cocktail party, and you can say goodbye to your carefully cultivated wealth.
Extras by Scott Westerfeld: After the events of Westerfeld's Uglies trilogy, cities struggle to restructure their social systems. In the city of Yokohama, everyone is assigned a "face rank," which measures their popularity. You can score a prime face rank by doing something incredible, or reporting a story about something incredible. Yes, it's a future ruled by bloggers.
The Downside of Popularity: It encourages people to dick over their friends for a great story, or sensationalize a story before all the facts are in.
The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks: The alien Dwellers live for billions of years, exchanging "kudos" to establish their social order. Although your kudos determines your status in society, to some extent, these reputation points do function like money; Dwellers can bet kudos or trade it for services.
The Downside of Popularity: Kudos operates under a bizarre sort of hipster-logic; the harder you work for your kudos, the less it's worth. Conversely, seeming like you don't particularly care about kudos is a great way to earn it.
"All Around the Universe" by Howard L. Myers: Myers' Admirable Society has decided that Admiration is the basic quality that everyone pursues in life, and so the best way to keep society moving forward to treat Admiration as currency. If you have a favorable interaction with another human being, your bank account will swell. But a day and a half with a high-class prostitute can wipe out your funds if you're just an average-looking chap.
The Downside of Popularity: Some people chafe at the idea of a society where people are forced to be popular all the time, and earning Admiration can get tougher as you get older. After all, when your pals hear that story about the famous chick you bedded for the 50th time, their Admiration starts to wear thin.
Distraction by Bruce Sterling: Money has by no means disappeared in this future version of America, but amidst the chaos of the crashing dollar, some gangs — such as the biker socialist Regulators — have eschewed money in favor of independent reputation economies. The reputation scoring system keeps folks honest, loyal, and polite, since the only way to achieve social wealth is by contributing to the good of the gang.
The Downside of Popularity: The Feds aren't big fans of folks who try to hop off the money train. (As one character puts it, "Living without money is just not the American way.") So they go after the gangs' reputation servers, leaving their social systems prone to data loss and, consequently, chaos.
Accelerando by Charles Stross: Stross' novel sees the birth of the reputation economy as venture altruist Manfred Macx puts his funds and energies into projects that earn other people profits and benefits, while living off the favors he earns instead of money. Eventually, a reputation stock market emerges, where you can invest a portion of your reputation in an idea, and see dividends or losses based on the idea's popularity.
The Downside of Popularity: Just like the monetary stock market, the reputation market is vulnerable to overinflation and lack of market confidence, and reputation investors sometimes put too much faith in marketers.
Pop Apocalypse by Lee Konstantinou: When face recognition is perfected, celebrity culture explodes into every aspect of human life. People with high-ranking Names are in great demand by the reality TV-loving public, and footage and photos of these celebs fetches a high price from media outlets, creating a 24-hour celebrity news cycle. This means that everyone who is the least bit famous is being constantly filmed and photographed. And if you've got a really valuable Name, you can IPO on the Reputation Exchange Market.
The Downside of Popularity: The horrors of constant surveillance aside, once you open up your reputation for public trading you have to obey the will of your voting shareholders. You'd better be feeling really good about the invisible hand of the market.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: The twenty-minutes-in-the-future America isn't a reputation economy, but your worth as a human being is determined by a series of statistics. In a world where all data is public, you're judged on your net worth, credit score, and disease profile. But other people get to rate you on your fuckability and personality. So folks are constantly judging you based on your statistics and contributing new statistics you'll be judged by. Sounds fun.
The Downside of Popularity: Folks spend so much time focused on their statistics that they forget to be actual human beings.
"The Moon Moth" by Jack Vance: Everything on the planet Sirene depends on your prestige or "strakh." Strakh determines everything — how you speak with other people, what items you may take from an artisan, and where you live. Fortunately, determining another person's strakh is simple enough. Everyone on Sirene wears a mask that demonstrates their status.
The Downside of Popularity: The Sirene have developed a complex, nearly inpenetrable social etiquette system, and something as simple as living in a shabby house or speaking to someone without the proper musical accompaniment can lower your strakh. Plus, the penalty for a serious faux pas is death. So chew with your mouth closed and don't walk the docks of Zundar while wearing your mask.