Monday, January 28, 2008

Online reputation defense and profile management: do the two concepts belong together? A new kind of "FICO"?

We’ve gotten used to the idea of a “privatized” version of Big Brother. The obvious example is credit reporting companies and FICO scores. I worked for one in the 1980s, and I remember the systems analysis for a project called “risk predictor” that would mine data to feed to Fair Isaacs. Now, banks, as we know from the subprime crisis, haven’t always used them thoughtfully, but the principle is there: your behavior as a consumer and to some extent responsible citizen gets tracked by both government and private interests; it is stored and sold or reported, in a manner that is somewhat regulated by a “shadow government” and generally accepted in our culture as necessary.

So now we find a similar, but even more perplexing problem, with online personal reputation. Of course, the concept of social reputation has always been with us, and in the pre-Internet bricks and mortar world it comprised a lot of items: word of mouth circulation from employer or business references, family connections, public records, “accidental” children (the “nice girl” issue), and even then, credit record. Even twenty years ago, professionals in various fields built referral lists, like “FirstCall” for physicians, that would provide personal information (like marital status and children) of professionals. The concept is easy to abuse; anyone who has lived in Texas knows the term “good old boy network.” Daytime soap operas thrive on this stuff.

Around 2004 or 2005, employers, hearing the hype about Myspace, Facebook, other social networking sites and plain blogs, started realizing that the Internet was a good place to check up on job applicants and employees. (There has been scattered problems before, though, when employees discussed their employers online or appeared in Internet pornography, for example.) Employers found that some people had twenty pages of Google references, and wondered how clients would feel about this. They began to perceive that many people did not care about their “reputations” the way previous generations had. Search engine checks on people could retrieve information, years old, that in the past would have aged and been forgotten with the course of time.

There are some companies cropping up which offer to scan the Web for items that can harm a client’s reputation, and context other parties to have damaging items removed. The best known of these is probably Michael Fertik 's Reputation Defender, which has registered service marks like “MyReputation”, "MyPrivacy" and “My Child.” There are other companies like Ziggs that build and monitor online “professional social networking” profiles for professionals in various fields.

The obvious question then is, what about putting the two concepts together? Does it make sense for a “reputation defending” company to work with major employers as clients, establishing norms of online behavior for “key person” employees? I think it does, and with some caveats, the evolution of such a business concept sounds inevitable.

Here it gets murky, and we get into areas that can elicit strong emotions and objections. First, yes, employers have a legitimate reason to be concerned that clients will be disturbed by some kinds of material posted (even at home) by associates. This is a new facet of online life, partly related to the efficiency of search engines, that we have been finding out we must learn to live with. And, yes, we have a strong tradition of freedom of speech, which is legally protected for most public employees (there are obvious issues for the military, intelligence, law enforcement, and in a different way, teachers, and especially with the latter there is a long audit trail of court cases that try to establish the “safe” boundaries of public employee speech, which the Internet has obviously made more complicated). In the mainstream workplace, we have a traditional expectation of separation between work and personal, which, of course, the Internet has breached. For an immediate perspective on this, go to "" Heather Armstrong’s account ("Collecting Unemployment") of her being fired in 2002 for what she wrote online, here. It's noteworthy that "The Company no longer had any use for" her, and that her material critical of her employer had been discovered even through she didn't mention The Company or other people by name. (This sounds like the "fiction" problem that I've taken up before.)

So, even as Dr. Phil recognized on some recent shows, we find ourselves talking about apples and oranges, an immiscible mixture when trying to forge new policy on online conduct, even from home. It’s well to consider what employers worry about, and wonder whether landlords and insurance companies will worry about these in the future. And there are several different potentially bad things.

One problem has been well known for years, that trade secrets might inadvertently be disclosed or implied, or that client personal information could get compromised indirectly, even resulting in security risks. That could come up especially with employers that deal with specific kinds of people as customers (“fraternal companies”) There’s plenty of media coverage on how quickly bad actors can fish for personal information that third parties have disclosed.

But reputation seems to focus on something more intangible, the idea that a client can depend on the associate as a professional. One issue that has caught the attention of the recent “online reputation debate” is the tendency of many people (especially teenagers) to portray themselves unfavorably on the Internet, or to allow others to do so. These concerns have focused particularly on images of underage drinking and drug use. One college student lost a job internship offer because the employer found a Facebook picture of her holding a bottle of vodka when she was not yet 21. That does seem silly and unreasonable to me, but it drives a point. Other problems have concerned self-portrayals in stories or scripts purported to be “fiction.” I got into trouble with a school district over this when I was substitute teaching, about a script in which a character who apparently behaves “illegally” and goes to jail was thought to resemble me too much. The script really is fiction. A supplementary issue for some employers may be the notion that the appearance of a person's name in combination with a defamatory string of words in a search engine result represents a problem, when it just means that the combination of words appeared together somewhere on one file (but may be unrelated).

One aspect of this whole “self-defamation” problem is that usually it occurs in the context of what the speaker believes is a morally legitimate social or political protest. Certainly, free speech rights include the right to protest drug or underage drinking laws, or age of consent laws or mores regarding gender roles. The employer may not get this, or may believe that the only appropriate way for their employees to “protest” is through more conventional collective action – belonging to labor unions, or throwing money at political candidates.

That brings us to another point: many jobs demand public loyalty to the employer’s objectives. The most obvious example is working for a politician’s campaign. It would be bad faith to receive a paycheck from some party whose values you personally disapprove of. But many other jobs require one to be perceived as a leader, authority figure, or personal role model (consider teachers), and from a psychological perspective, these expectations may not fit the temperament of many people who make themselves personalities on line. A double-edge in the argument is that the Internet does indeed “democratize” debate and force those in power to become more objective and less beholden to special interests as in the past; but doing so can come at a cost for speakers.

Some employers -- especially school districts (and the military some day) -- may want to strike some kind of truce that imagines that employees in sensitive jobs will not talk publicly about their personal affairs. But imagine the effect of such a policy on GLBT people. People use their "families" to promote "business" all the time, and the Internet can only magnify that process.

How would a reputation company work with an employer? One place to start is to recognize that in most organizations there are many different kinds of jobs with widely varying amounts or kinds of publicity-sensitive exposures. A computer programmer who works as an individual contributor and who is not known for his work outside the company (unless that programmer “represents” a staffing company – an increasingly common practice) may not present the reputation sensitivity of an executive who makes decisions about other people’s jobs. “Off-duty” online conduct policies should definitely be related to the job, and should be disclosed to employees and even job applicants. One possible rule would be that employees whose jobs do involve publicly representing the company or making decisions about others not post any material where search engines can find them. That means, if they use social networking sites to date, they must place them behind privacy filters and whitelists, which social networking companies now allow. The issue then is not the content of the speech but the audience to whom it is delivered. Associates might have to consider what they will do if they subsequently seek promotions into positions of greater public responsibility, or if external circumstances ("someone walks in through the door") push them into these positions.

Much of the attention in media reports has related to search engines, but it should be understood that reputation goes deeper than this (as it did before the Internet). Facebook profiles may be whitelisted, but people copy them and still spread them around, and in some cases employers have still asked to see them or been able to see them. Another issue is that it is easy to find the wrong party with a search engines, which were never intended to be used as “background investigation” or “skip tracing” tools when they were invented.

Could we wind up with an industry that rates people’s presence online the way FICO rates creditworthiness? Or the way we “rate” television shows and movies? Or the way we rate insurance companies, for that matter? It’s a scary thought. A technology that changed the topology of the way we communicate and sell ourselves as individuals suddenly becomes perverted into another tool to enforce social conformity, possibly out of some naive belief in benign political correctness. One thing is certain: the HR and Reputation Defense industries need to give serious thought as to what fair and ethical practices of employer monitoring of home-based expression on the web will be.

To sum up, one can imagine that in many jobs, people have to be wary about the idea what they say online (or what others say about them) affects how clients "feel" about depending on them. It is a deeply personal concept that is somewhat disjoint from the legality or appropriateness of online content when viewed apart from knowledge of who wrote it or whom it refers to. This is certainly a disturbing idea that can lead to the idea that the Internet is a place to check up on social conformity. It has me quite concerned.

Update: Feb 5, 2008

There is an important supplement on this blog, Feb. 1, about teachers, with an additional link there.

Update: Feb. 7, 2008

EFF has a story about a (now dropped) "frivolous" lawsuit by a Washington DC official against a local watchdog group and its website for apparently harming a "reputation". The link (by Marcia Hoffman) is here.

Update: Feb. 9, 2008

The Washington Times, every Saturday, has a "Nobles and Knaves" editorial, in which lately it has been naming ordinary citizens as "knaves" when reported to have done bad things (like getting caught with an open bottle when driving and a child in the car without a seatbelt, as in a recent Florida case). This is another example where third parties, even corporate ones, feel free to demean the "reputation" of ordinary people.

There is a follow-up on this story on this blog March 14, 2008.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your post, and I think you have a very fresh way of perceiving online reputation. You mentioned Ziggs as a "professional social network", but failed to mention entirely "professional networks" such as Linkedin, or Naymz. Even LookupPage is beneficial for businesses and individuals who want to promote their web presence "professionally". Not always, is the service of a "reputation defender" necessary to promote positive and professional results on the internet.