ORM: Your online reputation is the history of your life

OnlineReputationManagement-image

OnlineReputationManagement-imageYou’ve just snapped that perfect picture of you sucking in your stomach while standing stark naked in front of the mirror. You look good if you do say so yourself. What unknown person out there in cyberspace wouldn’t swoon over this male hunk or female beauty as the case may be? You type in @name then, before hitting Send, you remember Anthony Weiner and do Backspace, Backspace, Backspace, etc. and retype the address as “d name”. (@name = publicly accessible address; d name = private direct message) You hit Send.

Now what? It’s out of your hands. It’s been passed off to somebody but what will that somebody do? Marvel at your ripped abs? Do a spit take, calculate your rating on the celebrity scale then forward to @PerezHilton?

All of us have our youthful indiscretions. Okay, maybe not an Anthony Weiner indiscretion but should we pay for those mistakes for the rest of our lives? Well, I guess if you’re now going to tell me *said in a deep, slow Southern drawl*, “I killed a man once in El Paso for looking at me the wrong way” then yes, you probably will pay for the rest of your life. But if we’re talking about a picture of you drunk at a frat party dressed up in a toga with a lampshade on your head or some anonymous blogger taking exception to you personally and publishing a couple of thousand words about how you suffered oxygen deprivation at birth and your current single digit I.Q. is barely enough to see you capable of tying your shoes never mind carry out your job, then yes, we’re talking about those pieces of information floating around on the Internet which could have a negative impact on your reputation as a upstanding citizen.

Fifty years ago, the Internet didn’t exist and a person’s reputation, even if tossed in the crapper, could eventually be expunged thanks to the fallibility of the human memory. Eventually people forgot what you did that was so bad or the “badness” of your actions became less clear, more obscure with the passage of time. Yes, stuff was written down but your average citizen didn’t go to the library to search through the back editions of the newspaper to try and dig up dirt on somebody.

Nowadays, the Internet means things are written down in black and white… forever. And with Google, heck, people don’t even have to get out of their chairs to find stuff. That picture of you in a toga may be sitting on gawd knows what computer server in gawd knows what country and the chances of you getting a hold of it is just this side of fat chance, or as an acronym, FFC. (I’ll let you figure that one out.) Expunge? Sorry, the best you’ll get is ex-sponge, a former aquatic animal now a cleaning instrument. See squarepants.

Online Searches
Time magazine recently reported on your name popping up in searches.

More than just a source of personal humiliation, online reputations can also be professionally devastating. A 2010 study by Microsoft and Cross-Tab, a market-research agency, found that 78% of surveyed U.S. companies examined the search-engine results of prospective hires. The study also found that 86% of employers reported that a positive online reputation factors into their hiring decision. Which means all those persistent online links, videos and blog smears could become a major financial liability.

I find this interesting. The Information Age has brought us… information; a wealth of information. Google has said that its mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. I use Google all the time and am constantly amazed at what it can do, at what information is out there. For somebody who did grow up in the pre-Internet age, I am stunned at what I can find out without even getting out of my chair.

With great power comes great responsibility.
– Voltaire, FDR or Uncle Ben from Spiderman. Your choice

True story
I know a guy that committed a minor act which resulted in a felony conviction in Canada in 1970; the foolish act of a teenager. From then on, this person lived a law-abiding life. In 1983, he managed to have his record expunged through a legitimate, legal process. This meant there was no public record, no police record of his youthful folly.

In 1995, he was stopped on one of the many trips he regularly made into the United States. This was one of those random checks the border patrol occasionally does, nothing more suspicious than that. Somebody ran his name through the American computer system and his name popped up showing he had a felony conviction. It turned out that while you can expunge a record in Canada, that action does not expunge a record which may exist in the computer system of another country. The United States apparently keeps such information on file forever; there is no way to get it expunged.

This guy was grilled for hours, treated like a hardened criminal and eventually perp walked back to Canada. Finally he managed to get some sort of special I.D. which allowed him back into the U.S. but he must always present this card whenever he enters the country and this sometimes means he is taken aside and questioned all over again about something which happened back in 1970, over forty years ago! His past will hound him for the rest of his life due to information in a computer system.

Online Reputation Management
New situations create new problems which require new solutions. Information is published online and that online information represents for all intents and purposes our reputation; there for the entire world to read, analyse and eventually give a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Some of it may be our fault (that pic of us drunk at a toga party), some of it may not (that disgruntled blogger who has a bone to pick with us).

A new breed of media slash marketing company has emerged with the mandate of getting your reputation polished up for public consumption on the Internet. How do they do this? Apparently they monitor the Internet for stuff about you. When they find damaging content, they attempt to get the materials taken down by contacting the web sites in question. Does this work? Wired Magazine explained how one company, Reputation.Com does it:

If you’re a website owner and Reputation.Com knocks on your door, you are not legally bound to remove anything until a judge orders you to — a scenario that most website owners are keen to avoid.

“Most people will take materials down just to avoid the hassle of dealing with possible litigation,” says Susan Crawford, an associate professor at Cardozo Law School who specializes in cyberlaw and telecommunications law.

“If the letter is sufficiently threatening,” says Crawford, “the threaten-ee could bring his or her own lawsuit seeking a declaration that what they posted wasn’t unlawful. But, again, most people will just buckle rather than fight back.”

However, Wired goes on to point out that some things, like newspaper articles may be impossible to get removed. In that case, you will have to accept that Perez Hilton is going to publish your sex tape and yes, he thinks you need to lose weight. After all, there is something called the First Amendment so if the New York Times calls you a twit, they may just be justified in doing so. Aren’t you the one wearing a toga with a lampshade on your head?

Search Engine Optimization
This mouthful or SEO for short is the process of improving the visibility of a web page or a web site in the search results in Google or Bing or whatever. How? By manipulating the HTML content or by promoting a page or site to increase the number of links connected to it, the content can be made more popular in the eyes of Google. Okay, what the heck did I just say? Basically the ORM company tries to push good stuff about you to the top of the list when Google returns a list of links about you. When somebody searches on your name, instead of getting the irate blogger’s rant about oxygen deprivation at your birth, they will get other things, more complimentary, things which make you look like an angel instead of a putz. Irate blogger will be pushed down the list. Irate blogger is still there; he’s just not at the top of the list.

Does this work? Well, they say it does. I think I’m going to put the following in the header of my pages and see if the number of hits goes up.

Of course, how long is anybody going to stick around my site if they actually were looking for a kangaroo and a whoopee cushion only to discover I don’t have such materials?

The Damage done by others
Silver Arc Search Marketing in discussing ORM, points out that sometimes reputation problems find you.

It happens to the best of companies. A customer, an employee, or an ex-employee feels they have been wronged, mistreated, or is just wants payback. Even after your best efforts to resolve the problem, they post negative comments on blogs, forums and boards, or they lodge a complaint online.

Whether it’s fact or fiction, attempting to rebut comment(s) after months on the web, and possibly thousands and tens of thousands of eyes have seen it, is a losing task. The damage has been done.

How easy is it to dig up dirt?
Have you ever typed your own name into a Google search? Not curious about finding out just what info may be out there?

Joanna Geary is an editor with the British newspaper The Times. She gave a lecture to a group of teenagers about privacy and publishing online and privacy. During her lecture, she did an unrehearsed live demonstration of finding information on the Internet which she documents in her August 2, 2011 blog posting “Privacy and social media investigation: how I tracked down an entire family from one tweet“).

Starting off with a Twitter search consisting of the keywords “gunfire, shot, attack, missile”, she browses the various tweets. One in particular is particularly interesting: it references the first name of a person and says they were coming under attack. It also uses some army jargon that seems genuine. From there, she uses Google, LinkedIn and Facebook to find other related pieces of information. After nine steps of online research she describes in her blog, she writes:

I’ve gone from one tweet to knowing an entire family’s names, location, address, contact details, what they look like, how they are connected to the military and, potentially, where a part of the US army is coming under fire.

I stop there because I am already completely freaked out by just how far I’ve already got from a few Google searches.

Do you have any idea of what may already be online about you? Do you know whether your privacy settings in Facebook are set correctly? (I actually made a second Facebook account to verify that my privacy settings were in fact correct.) Ms. Geary continues:

It’s easy to say it’s incumbent on the individual to protect their own privacy, but it’s hard to see how we can always stop this type of jigsaw identification of people online. Sometimes people are mentioned online without them even knowing. Certainly having stricter default Facebook privacy settings would help, but it’s not the only answer.

As a journalist, she talks about her paper following some sort of “reasonable expectation of privacy” guideline but admits that there are those who would still be interested in using this type of technique for their own purposes and would not feel bound by any ethical code.

Jess Cooper
Jess Cooper is your normal 15-year old Australian girl who wanted to celebrate her sixteenth birthday back in March 2011 with a little party. She decided to post an invitation to the event on Facebook with her address and her cellphone number saying she would like her schoolmates to attend and if they wanted to bring somebody, to let her know. She apparently wrote that she didn’t have time to invite everybody individually and added that it was to be an “open house” party as long as it doesn’t “get out of hand”.

It went viral.

She ended up with several thousand accepting her invitation which was way more than her intended target group of just her schoolmates. Her home was bombarded with calls and text messages from total strangers inquiring about the party. People obviously found her home number based on her address posted with the invitation. So, she took her invitation down.

But…

An impostor recreated the Facebook account and copied and pasted all the information from the original invitation. It then went even more viral than the original invitation. Almost 200,000 people had accepted the invitation. An online store called Cafepress which sells various items like t-shirts and coffee mugs, started a series of items labelled, “I’m attending Jess Cooper’s party”

Gee, has this gotten just a tad out of hand?

The Coopers went to the police who started an investigation. They said they would be patrolling the area on the evening in question to ensure that anybody who showed up would be turned away. The Daily Telegraph of Australia reported that a teenage boy has been charged by police for setting up the impostor Facebook page. (see Jess Cooper’s Sweet 16 party: 200,000 guests: Oye! Times; Mar 15/2011)

Final Word
I suppose the best thing to do would be to not do it. Don’t tweet that naked photo of yourself. Don’t post that picture of a drunken you dressed in a toga wearing a lampshade. What seems to be funny between friends may not be quite so funny when it’s visible to the entire world. It’s interesting how something supposedly amusing can end up being crass, obscene or just plain stupid in the cold light of day.

Of course, the other side of the coin is when somebody else takes exception to you and starts publishing negative things about you. The irate blogger, the disgruntled employee or your ex-spouse may decide to tell the world how bad a person you are and since it’s in black and white, your future employer or your next client in doing a little research before closing the deal may end up with critical information which could affect whether they sign on the dotted line.

Does ORM work? According to various newspaper articles and the testimonials on various ORM company web sites, yes it does. It’s not perfect; it can’t remove all negative content about you, but it can affect what people may see about you.

Nevertheless, it’s easier to be preventative than remedial. It’s easier to stay healthy than to get well if you’re sick. It’s easier to maintain a good reputation than make a bad reputation good again.

“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”
-Benjamin Franklin 1706-1790; American Statesman, Scientist, Philosopher, Printer, Writer and Inventor.

It’s curious. Fifty years ago, finding out “stuff” on somebody was a manual process: research back issues of newspapers at the library, go to city hall to look at public records, inquire with the police, etc. That unto itself made researching anybody’s reputation difficult. Nowadays, with the Internet and Google, you have tons of information at your fingertips if you are willing to take the time to sift through it and if you know how to make effective and accurate search queries. Whether we like it or not, we are all less anonymous and more public than we realise or care to admit. Our “reputation” or the history of our lives is scattered around the world, scattered around the Internet as everybody from governments to Boy Scout troops, from universities to high school clubs publish information on the World Wide Web. – Did anybody notice how the first two W’s stand for world-wide? – This means that anything we do extends beyond our immediate vicinity, beyond our neighbourhood, beyond our town and beyond the borders of our country to the entire planet. This also means that anything we do exists long after a point in time extending into the future and theoretically forever. The game is changing and I’m not sure we fully realise yet just what that game will end up being. Whatever the case, there is no stopping this train now.

References

my blog: Anonymous on the Net: Not!
The recording of your computer’s IP address means that you are not necessarily anonymous when surfing. Somewhere there’s a record of your visit to www.GirlsGoneWild.Com.

my blog: Online, oh so not private and busted
Have a secret? If it’s published online, there’s a good chance somebody is going to find it.

Wikipedia: Online reputation management
Online reputation management (or monitoring) (ORM) is the practice of monitoring the Internet reputation of a person, brand or business, with the goal of suppressing negative mentions entirely, or pushing them lower on search engine results pages to decrease their visibility.

Wikipedia: Search engine optimization (SEO)
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving the visibility of a website or a web page in search engines via the “natural” or un-paid (“organic” or “algorithmic”) search results.

Wikipedia: Reputation.com
Reputation.com (formerly ReputationDefender) is a company located in Redwood City, California that sells online reputation management (ORM) and internet privacy. Company CEO Michael Fertik has criticized review websites that don’t monitor comments or require users to register. The company received publicity in the United States when it managed to remove death photographs of Nikki Catsouras from about 300 of some 400 Internet sites hosting them. The photos spread to new sites, and Fertik acknowledged their removal as “a virtually unwinnable battle”.

Techland – Apr 20/2011
Spain vs. Google: Citizens Can Have Unflattering Links Deleted by Doug Aamoth
The search giant’s position is that it indexes the world’s information, for better or for worse – if someone wants something removed, they should take it up with whoever published it.

Time – Apr 19/2011
Repairing Your Damaged Online Reputation: When Is It Time to Call the Experts? By Megan Gibson
As much as we might be loath to admit it, what the Internet is saying about us matters. Just ask anyone who has ever Googled a colleague or romantic interest — it’s the fastest way to dig up the dirt on someone.

Wired Magazine – Nov 7/2006
Delete Your Bad Rep by Scott Gilbertson
The mistakes you make on the internet can live forever — unless you hire somebody to clean up after you.

Time Techland – Aug 3/2011
Nine Degrees of Separation: How Easily Your Personal Info Can Be Found Online By Graeme McMillan
Worried about your online privacy, and the simplicity with which your life can be uncovered from one stray thread of social media? If not, maybe you should be.

Joanna Geary – Aug 2/2011
Privacy and social media investigation: how I tracked down an entire family from one tweet
I’ve gone from one tweet to knowing an entire family’s names, location, address, contact details, what they look like, how they are connected to the military and, potentially, where a part of the US army is coming under fire.

Oye! Times – Mar 15/2011
Jess Cooper’s Sweet 16 party: 200,000 guests
Jess Cooper is your normal 15-year old Australian girl who wanted to celebrate her sixteenth birthday with a little party. She decided to post an invitation to the event on Facebook with her address and her cellphone number saying she would like her schoolmates to attend and if they wanted to bring somebody, to let her know.

Almost 200,000 people had accepted the invitation. An online store called Cafepress which sells various items like t-shirts and coffee mugs, started a series of items labelled, “I’m attending Jess Copper’s party”.

Click HERE to read more from William Belle

Article viewed at: Oye! Times at www.oyetimes.com

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