May 30, 2010

Your Online Reputation

A few weeks ago, I was in a breakfast talk with Zia Yusuf. One of the topics was about online privacy. Zia said that he has given up on trying to maintain any privacy online. I completely understand what he meant, yet I was shocked that he had ‘given up.’ There is a lot of finger pointing about how especially social networks like Linkedin and Facebook betray our privacy, but the information about us that exists online, putting aside things that are uncontrollable by us such as what others say about us or being tagged in a photo or note, is derived from what WE post online about ourselves. So I believe that we are responsible for online content about us. It is up to us to pay attention, be thoughtful, and actively manage our online profiles and reputation.

Most online profile forms ask for a lot of information such as home towns, profession, affiliations such as alma mater, religious practices, volunteer activities, friends and family. People post voluminously about their opinions, products that they use and services that they patronize. Some such information would seem to be harmless. Whether or not I like broccoli won’t seem to have any consequences until the day I bid for a job to market broccoli. Merchandisers are already mining social networks for consumers and advocates ("influencers"). On the other end of the ‘innocuousness’ spectrum is information about our political activities. It is the duty of citizens to be politically engaged, to vote and support candidates, but many decision makers who can significantly affect our lives would penalize those who disagree with their politics. One company offers a tool to monitor employees' activities on social networks! Now, one’s political donations are searchable on the web!

So far, I've only talked about the public web. There is a huge, perhaps even larger body of content on 'private' webs. Most social networks claim that their sites are protected from search spiders, as are many databases such as voter logs, employment databases, criminal records, phone logs... but that information is accessible, ultimately with a court order.

What recourse or remedy do we have, if we’ve already blabbed too much, or the ‘wrong’ stuff about ourselves, online? Some obvious steps are:
  • Do a web search for oneself to see what’s out there.
  • Revise our online profiles
  • Delete material that we no longer want known about us
  • Tell our social media contacts not to tag us
  • Start posting information that we want known about us. There are few and fuzzy grey lines between ‘being positive’ and shameless self-promotion, or uber-political correctness.
More drastic steps to 'fix' over-exposure can be to end affiliations. There are already services to repair and promote one’s online reputation! One example, and I am not at all endorsing this service, is Reputation Defender. I have only read a few pages of their web site but their service indeed resonates. Building a brand online, and everywhere else, is recommended by everyone, including our Moms. One is indeed known more by reputation than by facts.

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