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How to protect your reputation in the digital age

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On the morning of May 18, 2011, at a coffee shop in Manhattan, social media daredevil and not-yet-former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) rhapsodized about the perils of candor in a Web 2.0 world. While Weiner's snarky use of hashtags had been netting him thousands of followers on Twitter, he also knew his extreme tweeting had the potential to backfire on him. "I know the risk," he told a New York Times reporter. "With absolutely metaphysical certitude, I will say that I will offend somebody or make a mistake once in a while. I won't always be politically correct, and I'm sorry in advance." Pre-emptive apology duly issued, he added a note of prudence ("You've got to be cautious"), finished up the interview, and went on with his business.

Which, it turns out, included emailing a photo of his naked erect penis to Meagan Broussard, a Facebook friend with benefits, just a few hours later. That same day, an unidentified acquaintance of hers informed BigGovernment.com muckraker Andrew Breitbart that she had compromising photos of the House's most left-leaning member. For more than a week, Breitbart sat on this information—but then Weiner accidently, or at least unadvisedly, tweeted another illicit photo, publicly, to a 21-year-old woman in Seattle.

Weinergate erupted, complete with claims of hacking, tense denials of responsibility, tearful mea culpas, and, finally, resignation. Punctuating it all was a portfolio of increasingly revealing images of Weiner—first the underwear shot he could not say with certainty was him, then his fully certifiable nipples, then the X-rated shot he'd sent to Broussard, then a set of him primping and flexing in the congressional gym. His pecs were in pristine shape for a 46-year-old. His reputation was not.

No blue dresses were soiled in the course of Weinergate. No gay massage therapists were contracted for purely therapeutic purposes. It was a wholly virtual scandal, which, unfortunately for Weiner, means it is likely to be a stubbornly indelible one. Those photos aren't going anywhere. Nor are the email transcripts detailing Weiner's dirty talk with a Las Vegas blackjack dealer. In the Internet age, even no-contact one-night stands last forever.

That our permanent records finally live up to their name is unsettling. Over a lifetime, even relatively pure souls generate piles of dirty laundry. In his 2007 book The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet, Daniel J. Solove, a law professor at George Washington University, contemplates what may happen when information about our pasts—information, that is, that was "once scattered, forgettable, and localized"—becomes too comprehensive, too cumulative, too retrievable by anyone with a computer. "The more freedom people have to spread information online, the more likely that people's private secrets will be revealed in ways that can hinder their opportunities in the future," he writes.

In part, what worries Solove and other observers of the online world is how easily the Internet allows individuals to publish false and defamatory claims about others. "So far," Reputation.com co-founder Michael Fertik explains in his 2010 book Wild West 2.0, "U.S. courts have held that [Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996] completely exempts websites from liability for the actions of their users—including defamation and other torts against private individuals."

But what may be most unnerving about the Web is not how it empowers malicious smear merchants but how it standardizes chronic self-disclosure through mechanisms as innocuous as Facebook "likes," and how it allows content aggregators to amass the tiny truths we disclose about ourselves in ways we can neither predict nor control. Imagine car insurers monitoring your tweetstream to see how often you use Foursquare to check-in at bars at least 30 miles from your apartment. Imagine dating sites assigning you a narcissism quotient based on how often you review hair salons and Pilates instructors on Yelp.com.

As indiscreetly as we live now, it is possible that in 2013 we may look back to 2011 as a golden era of privacy. Flickr, Facebook, and other social media sites today are filled with millions of photos that could prove embarrassing in certain contexts, but for the most part the people in those photos remain unidentified. That's changing fast. "When combined with facial recognition and the power of Google to find obscure information, the possibility of damage to reputation is obvious," Fertik writes. "Anyone photographed (accidentally or intentionally) near an adult bookstore could be identified by name and made subject to ridicule by his peers."

Fertik may be overstating this particular threat: Since amateur porn killed the adult video star, there aren't many adult bookstores left. Still, if you're the kind of person who believes the electric chair is an appropriate penalty for people who cut in line at the bagel shop, 21st-century justice may exceed even your wildest fantasies. Soon you'll be able to snap a photo of anyone whose public behavior rubs you the wrong way, determine their real identity, and let the Internet crowd-source their punishment. With even minor transgressions triggering public shaming campaigns, parking space theft will plummet and movie theaters will become quiet as cemeteries. But do we really want to inhabit this dystopian Eden of compulsory virtue?

If we are doomed to inhabit it, is there at least a way to obtain a little breathing room for our shortcomings, a little clemency for our missteps? Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, author of the 2009 book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in a Digital Age, proposes that planned obsolescence be applied to data: All your blog posts, tweets, and other digital artifacts could have a predetermined shelf life set by you. Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain champions "reputation bankruptcy," which would allow people to compel companies collecting information about them to wipe their databases clean every 10 years or so.

While these solutions involve destroying data, creating more of the stuff appears to be a more practical approach, at least in the short term. In Wild West 2.0, Fertik argues that the best way to adapt to the increasingly panoptic Internet is to make sure you flood it with "content that makes you appear social, outgoing, and friendly—such as smiling photographs with friends or powerful people." According to Fertik, studies by researchers at Cornell University, AOL, and other institutions suggest that "the vast majority of users only look at the first three search results" when consulting Google and other search engines. The trick, then, is to create enough positive content about yourself, at enough different websites, to ensure that even those searching for dirt on you find this positive information first. In essence, it's search engine optimization applied to individuals.

Here Anthony Weiner proves instructive. While the congressman's penchant for the spotlight may have led to his downfall, it has also served him well. The Internet may contain a dozen or so embarrassingly revealing photos of Weiner, but it's filled with far more shots of him looking professional and assured. Go to Google.com, type in "Anthony Weiner," and click on the "Images" option. Even with "Safe Search Off," what you'll see first is Weiner posing in front of the Capitol building, Weiner posing in front of a flag, Weiner posing with his wife, Weiner looking composed, confident, clothed.

Scroll down a ways, and eventually you'll see Weiner's nipples. Scroll down some more and there's his underwear. Type in something a little more specific— "Anthony Weiner nude" or "Anthony Weiner scandal"—and the results are less forgiving. Still, it's only been a few months and already the scandal does not completely define him. Whether this is a result of recent proactive reputation management techniques or a fortuitous effect of two decades' worth of professional image crafting, it should give hope to us all. The Web of the future may not be as oppressive as advertised. As long as we're willing to saturate the Internet with carefully choreographed self-spam, our ability to trade racy pix with unreliable strangers should endure.  

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.

NEXT: EU Bans Free-Range Kids! Nanny of the Month (October 2011)

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  1. …keeps people working for the slavers to accumulate more stuff.

    Keep twitbooking, people. With enough of it, you’ll reach happiness.

  2. Internet “reputation beauty boutiques” will grow. Burying the negative under tons of positive spam; for a fee.

    1. There’s a business opportunity there.

      1. Done, they advertise on NPR regularly. “Protecting online reputations for Drs, Lawyers…”

        1. Huh. I wasn’t aware that these services existed. Perhaps it’s because I don’t listen to NPR. Thanks for the info.

  3. on the other hand, electronic data storage decays much moar rapidly than say…clay tablets & business quality paper.

    1. Your grammar teacher must be committing hara kiri.

        1. Maybe someday when you grow up, you’ll begin to gain an inkling of an understanding of why you should.

          1. ohh, do tell rage. ur da bees knees !

    2. on the other hand, electronic data storage decays much moar rapidly than say…clay tablets & business quality paper.

      But it’s so much more easy to copy.

  4. I show my penis online to enhance my reputation.

    Let’s face it, the kids of today live their lives an open e-book. If they carry that mindset into adulthood, the next generation will be numb to pecker shots and Nazi Halloween costumes. Shame will be a thing of the past.

    1. to invent immodesty.

      How did that happen?

      1. How is a dog licking his balls clean modest? Or a cat cleaning it’s own asshole for 15 minutes in front of the TV set modest?

        1. If I could do that I would never leave the house.

          1. I’m sure he’d let you.

      2. My guess is that the well developed frontal lobes of the brain, and the rational thought that results when a human being uses that part of their brain, determined over time that things like licking assholes or going about naked can result in becoming ill.
        So the rational part of the brain created a concept of modesty which shields the body from certain types of harm.
        Liberals, human animals who choose not to use that rational part of the brain except to rationalize their animal emotions, have no use for things like modesty.

      3. I didn’t quite understand the comment at first myself, but what I think he meant is that only humans have invented the concept of modesty and immodesty – which are artificial constructs. What would be viewed as completely non-controversial behavior, clothing, appearance, etc., not worthy of a second glance, in one society might be considered horrifically and shockingly immodest and offensive in another.

        Why is is ok in most first-world countries for a man to show his naked torso above the waist and legs below the pelvis in public, but not his naked buttocks? And it’s not ok for a woman to show the same areas – particularly the front of the upper torso?

        And what will get you arrested in some countries for lewd and obscene exposure would be considered over-dressed on certain beaches in Brazil.

      4. Ate some shit after we got told not to, if you believe the Bible. Whoops.

    2. Shame will be a thing of the past.
      reply to this
      ——————–
      it already is. My stepdaughter’s high school, and this is several years ago, had an after-school club for pregnant students. And this was a fairly affluent golf community, not the stereotypical baby mama setting. The club even gave prizes, because apparently getting pregnant at 16 was not prize enough.

      An entire generation now thinks it’s okay to live in mommy’s basement, sponge off the family insurance plan till 26, and work part-time for some non-profit. The last generation thought by 26, most folks would be working, married, with at least one kid, and NOT closing down bars. Shame has been replaced by moral relativism, which says no choice, action, or belief system is superior to any other. This basically means that Jim Jones, Heaven’s Gate, David Koresh, and the perverted form of Islam are now different than the corner church, synagogue, or crystal shop.

      Sorry for the rant, but shame was once a very useful social tool. It stopped people from doing stupid things because those actions not only reflected poorly on them, it made the whole family look bad. Now, sorriness is morally acceptable.

      1. /sarc off

        It is up to the parents to overcome government school conditioning.
        It can be done. Not all young people are hopeless. But the ones that are not have a common thread: Their parents are active in their lives.
        By active I don’t mean just showing up to events and cheering them on, win or lose.
        I mean actively talking with them and guiding them. Reviewing what they are being taught and separating fact from bullshit.
        It can be done, but it is not easy.

        1. +3 pregnant teens

        2. Like Flander’s flashback of his parents on The Simpsons. We’ve tried nothing and we are all out of ideas.

        3. Hey now some of us moved out of our parents house to more effectively close down the bars.

  5. Don’t worry, Homeland Security will apparently look out to make sure you don’t embarrass yourself online.

    1. Dear Department of Homeland Security:

      B ba bomb bomb bomb bomb Obama bomb baba bomb ba obama bomb bomb bomb.

  6. Imagine dating sites assigning you a narcissism quotient based on how often you review hair salons and Pilates instructors on Yelp.com

    Imagine the day in the not-too-distant future when previously anonymous blog commentators begin to get outed, their real names made public. The shield gone forever, would they stop commenting? Or would their narcissism reign?

    1. …and quit questioning the superiority of technology intermediating between human relationships.

      Somebody set us up the EMP.

  7. This inspired me to Google myself. I was amazed to discover that a radio appearance I did recently was apparently also recorded and preserved for posterity on video. I had no idea. I wonder how many times I picked my nose.

      1. Thanks. I didn’t want to have to watch it myself.

        1. The crucial question is, did it record what you did with them?

          1. Oh, that’s no biggie. I post those pix on my giantballofboogers.com blog, anyway.

    1. When I google myself, I’m a folksinger in Canada. When I looked myself up in Spokeo, 99% of what they had was wrong about me. The 1% that was right was freely available on my county website tax records. The problem is that if you didn’t know me, you wouldn’t know which 99% was wrong and which 1% was right.

      There are still no known photographs of me on the internet.

  8. Is there a way to protect your online privacy in the digital age?

    Yeah – don’t write, say or do anything stupid you’ll regret later. Then it won’t matter if anyone can find whatever you wrote or said online.

    1. Of course, I can’t say how many times I’ve violated this maxim myself. Probably many…

      1. this bodes well for the next generation of political candidates. Imagine that kegger from 25 years ago being the image that people who don’t know you use to define you. Or, that time you flashed someone on spring break. Or or or…. Technology continues to outpace man’s ability to use it wisely.

      2. this bodes well for the next generation of political candidates. Imagine that kegger from 25 years ago being the image that people who don’t know you use to define you. Or, that time you flashed someone on spring break. Or or or…. Technology continues to outpace man’s ability to use it wisely.

    2. This. Everyone should assume that everything they write/post anywhere is, for all practical purposes, public and permanent. Is this such a difficult concept to grasp?

    3. The problem is not the internet’s ability to aggregate personal information. The problem is people who feel compelled to post personal information on the internet. This weekend, there were photos posted on Facebook of me at the Long Beach Zombie Walk. In full zombie make up, I’m fall-down drunk, smoking, and in one photo flying double eagles. No big deal, that’s the worst photo that will ever be posted of me on the internet. Because I will never take a photo of my junk and post it on my LinkedIn account. It’s called common sense and self-restraint. Problem solved.

  9. I wish my name was Anthony Weiner
    That is who I truly with to be
    cause if my name was Anthony Weiner
    everyone would see my great physique
    oh everyone would see by great wee-wee
    everyone would know would know all about me

    1. That is who I truly with to be

      On top of all that, he’s gay too?!

      1. Oh thop it! It wath a thypo!

        1. tause im thupid

  10. Fuck, so all those times I emailed Warty on Craigslist are stored somewhere?

    All those times John and MNG took their little (wink wink) quid pro quo elsewhere (Read: room 2023 at the MGM Grand) have been immortalized?

  11. I am not sure if one should be more concerned or more aroused that the inappropriate pictures of oneself be exposed on the internet?

  12. If aliens ever start studying us through our digital communications, are THEY in for a surprise when they see all those cocks on Chatroulette and Omegle.

    1. No surprise Res,
      that has been their goal since the beginning, that was the goal of all their intervention in human society.

      All the molesting of rednecks was just an aside of their true goal, to get as many schlongs as possible digitally represented.

      1. The movie ‘Independence Day’ was actually a documentary on those very same perverted aliens. If they couldn’t get their schlongs, they were going to fuck us up.

  13. Oh, my Weiner is back – O how I missed him. Life without Weiner was a life not worth living…O how I hope he never leaves.
    I need to see my weiner every day!!!!

  14. “the House’s most left-leaning member”

    So every ‘member’ of the house has been measured for leaning propenisity?

    1. The angle of the dangle…

    2. It depends on whether the phrase is preceded by “is” versus “has”.

  15. Is there a way to protect your online privacy in the digital age?

    Yes. When you’re uploading that picture (or any personal information, for that matter) of yourself to your Facebook/Friendster account, ask yourself, “How would I feel if everyone on the planet saw this picture?” If you’re uneasy about that notion, don’t upload it. Privacy protected.

  16. and how it allows content aggregators to amass the tiny truths we disclose about ourselves in ways we can neither predict nor control.

    Control? No. Predict, not only yes, but hell yes.

  17. All your blog posts, tweets, and other digital artifacts could have a predetermined shelf life set by you. Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain champions “reputation bankruptcy,” which would allow people to compel companies collecting information about them to wipe their databases clean every 10 years or so.

    These ideas, while philosophically nice, are so completely unworkable they’re really not even worth discussing.

    These kinds of things sort of beg the question: if we were to actually achieve these ideas through legislation, wouldn’t that require a kind of ‘master switch’ that the government would control for all data.

  18. The trick, then, is to create enough positive content about yourself, at enough different websites, to ensure that even those searching for dirt on you find this positive information first. In essence, it’s search engine optimization applied to individuals.

    Serious question for the group, so I can get a feel for what other people think on this:

    Would you rather have:

    1. Lots of positive, personally identifiable information about you on the web which is searchable?

    2. No personally identifiable information about you on the web which is searchable?

  19. “”2. No personally identifiable information about you on the web which is searchable?””

    Public information is on the web, although you may need to pay to access it.

  20. John Brunner was prescient. Shockwave Rider’s “anonymous denunciation service” is here, just more distributed and less centralized than in the story.

  21. One science fiction writer had an interesting solution to this glut of personal data. His story had hackers who were dedicated to filling the internet with false information about everyone, so that no personal data would be trustworthy.

  22. AW was a piker. Google “Rakofsky v. Internet” for a real laugh.

    Everyone’s a public figure now.

  23. been netting him thousands of followers on Twitter, he also knew his extreme tweeting

  24. Pre-emptive apology duly issued, he added a note of prudence (“You’ve got to be cautious

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