Thursday, August 28, 2008

Reputation defense: social networking profiles, and self-publishing represent different, if overlapping issues; which appeared first?

The debate and media coverage of “online reputation defense” is starting to bifurcate into two somewhat overlapping areas. Actually, it’s the second area that major broadcast media and now legal books (and even reputation defense companies) seem to heed the most. That is, as pointed out by Palfrey and Gasser in their new book “Digital Natives” (see my “Books blog” for Aug. 26), a whole generation is living a sort of parallel or “second life” in cyberspace, particularly making social and business contacts and developing (at least outside of marriage) a social and public identity. It’s pretty easy to imagine that this would concern employers, particularly in business models predicated on building and maintaining personal “client lists” and “bringing in business.” The distinction between work and “private life”, so sacrosanct two decades ago, particularly with respect to LGBT issues (remember how things were with the HIV crisis?) seems almost obliterated. This development is particularly interesting as politicians realize that they will probably have to scrap the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell.”

But it’s the first area – self-publication with a particular context – that most concerns me, as it has since the late nineties, once search engines became effective, but even several years before social networking sites came into being. My idea (“do ask do tell” would make a good colloquial buzzword for it) was to accumulate libertarian-oriented political arguments within a certain logical structure, and publish them with very little or no bureaucracy, and have the ideas get around through search engines or even “word of mouth”, so that special interests in the political scene could not easily continue to present public policy as a battle between the special interests of various groups. Although I had a lot to argue about individual liberties (especially LGBT issues), the format of delivery of message was a concept that generally appeals to conservatives, who often criticize the influence of pork and special interests (although during the Bush years they have been guilty of it) and of collectively playing the “I’m a victim” card.

The self-publishing involved personal history, but that should be seen apart from “personal information.” Some of my own history relates to the arguments that I make (particularly about the military policy, as well as various free speech issues, and eldercare). I think that the history strengthens the arguments. But it is true that the history “identifies” me publicly and that can be problematic in some kinds of situations. From a “social networking” point of view, my intention is to meet the “right people” because of the work I have done and published, not just to meet them directly through friends’ lists or something like a “Gossip Girl” world. That is a technique that actually works, but it may separate me from people who need me.

One important aspect of the “self-publication” approach is that I develop all my own materials and present them. I don’t depend on an organization to speak for me or protect my interests in an adversarial battle. I don’t depend on HRC or the AARP to protect me. I don’t want to admit to depending on them.

It also means that normally, I won’t be willing to work publicly for specific political candidates, because no candidate can take care of me. I have to be responsible enough for myself. Pretty idealistic, perhaps.

My own history with self-publication grew the issue of employment concerns, but they were more a matter, from my perspective, of “conflict of interest” than “reputation.” In fact, because of “reputation” concerns and possibly also torts (invasion of privacy, maybe even accidental libel) I stay away from the personal rumors about others: who your boss dates, who was stripped on the gay disco floor last weekend, etc. That sort of thing has caused trouble, for others, particularly in the workplace, even before online social networking came along. (I fact, I feel, even if you’re a celebrity, you have a right to go where you want without the amateur paparazzi.)

When I worked on my first book, covering, in large part, the “gays in the military” issue as it evolved in the 1990s, I was working for a life insurance company that, among other things, specialized in selling to military officers. Even though I was just an “individual contributor” I feared a conflict of interest. We vetted the issue with HR, and eventually I applied for and got a transfer enabled by a “friendly” corporate takeover. (Some of these are actually good for employees, you know.) One point that came out of the discussions was that I never made decisions about others, particularly underwriting decisions. You see what the locus of concern for corporations was in earlier Internet days. Nobody was worried about “reputation” in the sense of drinking or drugs. But I can imagine troublesome scenarios that could occur (even if they didn’t). What if I had access to HIV-related information of servicemembers. I didn’t, but maybe the public won’t know that.

One result of this vetting process was reinforcing the idea that different policy issues really do link up in surprising ways (often overlooked by politicians), and that there are a lot of dots to connect on this issue “game board.”

Over time, I came to see how this could extend to many areas. Of course, employers guard their trade secrets, but in some cases general public statements made by associates could be interpreted as giving out compromising information. Of course, consumer data security has become a much more sensitive issue today than it was even ten years ago. Moreover, public statements could be construed as hostility to certain classes of people, an issue for management employees (or underwriters), or people who give grades, like public school teachers.

Around 2001 or so, we started seeing occasional debates on the Internet as to whether employers needed to have off-the-job “blogging policies.” Once in a while, we would hear of a sensational case of someone being fired (with Heather Armstrong, in 2002, leading to her forming the mommy blog and the adoption of the verb “dooce” in the English language).

The social networking site “reputation” and “friends” problems (as discussed Aug. 25) overtook these “conflict of interest” concerns, and we know that many employers started using search engines and social networking profiles to do “background checks”, often with very misleading results since none of these products were designed for that purpose. Even so, older concerns remained. I reported on this blog on Aug. 2 that CNN apparently has a strict policy on employee’s commenting on issues, and I suppose that other news organizations may have similar policies. (Visitors: does anyone know?)

I had to figure out what I would do as I planned on reentering the job market. I wrote a few pieces on the “conflict of interest” issues with self-publication, one as far back as 2000. The main piece is the “personal blogging policy,” which I posted here in February 2005, here; it gives links to other discussions. Nancy Flynn wrote a book “Blog Rules” which SHRM (Society for Human Resources Management) and the AMA (American Management Association) sell, and it reflects the pre-Facebook concerns over blogs and personal sites (link is there; I reviewed this before I had my books blog).

One point that I made was that people in certain kinds of jobs (where they are paid to make decisions about others or to speak for others rather than for themselves) probably should not self-publish in areas accessible to search engines at all, unless they are carefully supervised, and their content remains “static” (the way a published book does) and is allowed to age and become dated. I didn’t feel that merely not mentioning place of employment was “enough”; I rather bought the idea that, in the “digital native age”, one has just “one identity”, no matter how many “cyber dominions” one lives in. The “advent” of social networking (however sudden) may not make as much difference as one thinks: profiles can be kept private and away from search engines, although in practice its unclear how “private” such profiles have really remained.

When I was substitute teaching, I took only short-term assignments and had no authority. Yet, eventually I ran into “difficulty.” (See July 27, 2007 on this blog). Had I worked up to a “long term sub” where I would have the authority to give grades, according to my own rules, I would have had to drop everything. I would even have lost the right to keep using my “do ask do tell” domain name. That wasn’t worth it unless I would make a complete career change.

One may ask, why not just restrict talking about certain subject matter, as part of a “blogging policy”? In a narrow sense, that can work: don’t talk about your own workplace. (A lot of people have gotten in trouble over this on personal blogs, not just Heather Armstrong.) But imagine what it means to demand, “don’t talk about your sexual orientation.” (Hint: the military.) Don’t talk about the elderly, because you’re too close to a situation. Don’t talk about anything “controversial” and “admit” that it is somehow an issue for you. That could undermine “business” or relationships with clients, who have to “trust” you. Well, maybe it could, so that’s why some people probably shouldn’t talk about anything outside of approve channels. It’s not a matter of censorship content. It’s a matter of standing, perhaps, but of the way one presents oneself publicly related to the job one has taken on.

One lesson from all of this would be, when you advance in a career in a way that makes you publicly visible and that presents your “identity” (even as a “digit native”), make sure you ware doing something that represents your values. You may have to stake your personal “reputation” behind what you do. Make sure you really believe in it.

There is a corresponding lesson for “business” here: if it has (rather suddenly) become so vulnerable to the “reputations” of its individual agents, maybe business needs to reconsider how it operates. Maybe the old time ideas of manipulation and selling do need to change. Customer service definitely needs to change.

One other thing about all of this: what’s in it for me? Maybe to sell the “life story” (chuckle) as a movie? Actually, I’m working on that. But shorter term, it’s a good question, since there isn’t a lot of obvious “reward” in it. I do have the satisfaction of showing that one person can “write everything down”; the fact that someone does that keeps the politicians on their toes. Actually, I think that’s true. Maybe I could prove it. But who benefits? What specific human being (whom I’m accountable to) is better off? That’s a good existential question with some potential significance, even legal meaning in some situations. Is "being right" in public a fundamental right, or does it depend on "being accountable" (to someone specific)? Could all of this mean that we all have a moral obligation to become “partisan” eventually? (I use the mathematical meaning of the word “eventually”, as compared to “frequently”, here.) I do get the question, why won’t I run for office (to make myself “real”)? And I thought I’d answered it. But, maybe I will run some day.

1 comment:

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