Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Online Reputation and Personal Responsibility

Sites are cropping up all over the internet that promise to protect your reputation online. This started me thinking about online reputation and personal responsibility in the face of an ever shrinking online world.
At what point does our personal responsibility for our own online reputation end?
In this internet age, your reputation is not just everything, it's everywhere.

Logging on to sites like FaceBook and MySpace, we are confronted with the changing face of society. A younger set perfectly content to put every detail of their lives online, without regard to the consequences. What effect does this propensity of information and lowering of boundaries have on the average individual's future? On the average company?

The answer is that it can adversely effect both individual and company in a variety of ways. Most people who have been online longer than ten minutes know the term "to get dooced" mean to be fired for blogging during/about work. The term was coined for blogger Heather Armstrong, who writes the blog Dooce, and who was one of the first bloggers to find out just how entwined your online reputation is with your offline one. It worked out well for Dooce (her blog is still going strong), but in most cases it works out poorly for he individual.

A company can face even more serious repercussions if its reputation goes in the toilet online. That is why so many companies are adopting strict policies blocking and/or regulating access to the internet at work. One slip by an employee on their personal site, blog or social network profile page can have a company facing serious repercussions for leaked products and other fiascos. That doesn't even begin to touch on how employee conduct may reflect on certain organizations that depend on having a clean reputation to do business.

Add in to the mix the anonymity of the web, which makes people lower their guard even further, and you can have a real mess on your hands. Most people will change their behavior if they think they can get away with it, and the web breeds an erroneous feeling that "no one can see the real you". In face, online, everyone can see the real you. All of the information that has ever been online about you, both private and public, is usually only a few clicks away. That's a sobering thought that most people don't ever pause to consider.

Companies have been cropping up in recent months to handle the new need for online reputation monitoring in the age of hyper connectivity. Some of these companies, like Techrigy, got their start as something else (in the case of Techrigy, a blog backup service is evolving into a reputation protector for companies). Reputation Defender is making a name for itself helping several women lawyers manage their images after they viciously attacked online. Other companies cropping up to help either companies or individuals keep their reputations and identitiy intact include: Stolen ID Search, MyPublicInfo, Claim ID, Naymz, Choice Point, and new uses for old school application LexusNexus.

All of those companies charge steep fee for what amounts to little more than damage control. Once your reputation flounders online, the ensuing ripple effect is often hard to staunch before it becomes a river. For all attacks on individual reputations, a little discretion fro the moment you first log onto a computer and start posting information about yourself would go a long way. Unfortunately, sometimes even the most cautious and circumspect can fall afoul of a vindictive soul (or souls). There are always going to be internet users who see the curtain of anonymity as license to be abusive and libel others, and they are hard to shake once they become fixated on someone.

Companies have their share of zealot opponents too, but they have an easier time dealing with them. By having a response come from the top of the organization immediately upon being faced with a problem, being sincere, and keeping the response as transparent as possible, a company can do much to staunch the hemorrhaging of its reputation due to one incident (the Gizmodo response to the indictment of its action at CES was one example of how not to act when your reputation is challenged online). If a company hasn't been careful with its reputation in the past, or simply puts out a terrible product or service that gets more than just a little bad feedback, they maybe they need to hire an online reputation repair service after all.

In my view, personal responsibility goes much further than damage control. Face the fact that unless you have been hyper-vigilant every minute of every day both on and offline, chances are you have something stupid, somewhere, sometime. Even greater are the chance that you or someone else got it on camera, blogged it or otherwise put it out there for the world to see. When that happens, being as forthright as possible about your own actions will go much farther to correct the situation than an online reputation management firm ever could.

In the end, your online reputation is up to you, the individual, and you, the company. Education is key - know where your data is going to be used, and how.
Pay attention to how you present yourself online. Take note of your actions and how they could be construed by others. Behave online as if your mother was looking over your shoulder, instead of as if you were hiding behind a curtain of anonymity, free to be as hurtful as you please. Remember that there are consequences for your actions, even online, though they may not be the ones you expect. If all else fails, face the music with square shoulders and a responsible attitude.


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