The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Don’t Give a Damn About Your Bad Reputation?

Crossposted from my EchoDitto Blog.

I want you to try something right now, especially if you’ve never done it before. (And if you haven’t, why on earth not?) Google your name. (If you’ve got fairly common first and last names, try using quotations.) Done? Good. You’ve just taken the first step to discovering who’s saying what about you online.

In other words, you’ve plugged into your online reputation. Didn’t know you had one? Unfortunately, if you’ve ever applied for a job, been in the news, or had a doctor’s appointment you may be the last to know about your online reputation. You may also be surprised at what you find there.

And, yes. I did say if you’ve ever gone to the doctor you may have an online reputation. Why? Because doctors are blogging and some doctors are blogging about their patients.

Hundreds of doctors across the country are writing Internet diaries that sometimes include harsh judgments of patients, coarse observations and distinct details of some cases.

Medical blogging is so new that medical boards, schools and professionals disagree on what is acceptable. Critics say the blogs cross into an ethical gray area and threaten patient privacy while posing liability risks for health workers and their employers.

A medical blogger, for example, wrote this in discussing an 18-year-old who on Christmas Day had her third baby:

“I don’t mind it so much when a young single woman comes in with her first pregnancy, because anyone can make a mistake. But when that woman gets pregnant repeatedly, time after time, she degrades herself and her children, by condemning herself to a lifetime of dependency and irresponsibility.”

The writer, who identifies himself as a neonatologist working in a U.S. urban area, writes about his practice at http://www.neonataldoc.blogspot.com.

I perused Neonataldoc’s archives for last month and found a few more posts where patients (and/or parents) were subject to his spotlight. And while the doc maintains both the patients’ anonymity and his own, it’s not hard to imagine even a few details being enough for a motivated web sleuth to match them up with an actual person. Or to think they have, because that’s all they need to start with.

And if you’re pregnant, you don’t have wait for your doctor to blog about you. April Branum found out when she had her baby, within days of finding out she was pregnant, just how quickly her online reputation developed. Anonymous commenters on the news article took potshots at everything from her weight to her housekeeping. A second article about the comments attacking Branum inspired even more of the same. (Note: Comments on news sites means no blog is required in order to attack someone’s reputation online.)

You don’t have to be pregnant either. Law students can lose job opportunities because of anonymous comments on message boards.

She graduated Phi Beta Kappa, has published in top legal journals and completed internships at leading institutions in her field. So when the Yale law student interviewed with 16 firms for a job this summer, she was concerned that she had only four call-backs. She was stunned when she had zero offers.

Though it is difficult to prove a direct link, the woman thinks she is a victim of a new form of reputation-maligning: online postings with offensive content and personal attacks that can be stored forever and are easily accessible through a Google search.

The woman and two others interviewed by The Washington Post learned from friends that they were the subject of derogatory chats on a widely read message board on AutoAdmit, run by a third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania and a 23-year-old insurance agent. The women spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution online.

The law-school board, one of several message boards on AutoAdmit, bills itself as “the most prestigious law school admissions discussion board in the world.” It contains many useful insights on schools and firms. But there are also hundreds of chats posted by anonymous users that feature derisive statements about women, gays, blacks, Asians and Jews. In scores of messages, the users disparage individuals by name or other personally identifying information. Some of the messages included false claims about sexual activity and diseases. To the targets’ dismay, the comments bubble up through the Internet into the public domain via Google’s powerful search engine.

Remember that Google search I had you do earlier? Now you see why.

I just take issue, and then only a little, with the Post’s assertion that this is a “new form of reputation-maligning. Just last year I posted that the web is the new public pillory, because your worst behavior is no longer private, nor does it stay in the past anymore. A year before that I posted that even college professors lose job opportunities due to blogging, It’s an old form of maligning, actually, just applied to a new medium which makes it more powerful and persistent.

It reminds me of something I saw one evening while walking through D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood. I noticed a handwritten note taped to a streetlight, written in black maker, reading something to the effect of “Willy is a _____________ and a _____________ and gave _________________ to ____________________.” “Willy” is a pseudonymn, and you can use your imagination to fill in the accusations against him. You might even guess correctly, beause there were a lot of them.

Every few steps, there was another sign accusing “Willy” of some dastardly act or another. I don’t know what “Willy” did or why his accuser those that blog. Maybe “Willy” lived or worked on that street, and someone wanted his boss, co-workers, or his neighbors to see the signs.

If that’s the case, “Willy” could foil the campaign if he snatched down the signs. Or he could at least limit how long they were visible and how may people saw them. He could destroy them, and that would be the end of it. But if “Willy’s” anonymous accuser did the same thing online, there would be little anyone could do about it.

Even law proffessors have thrown up their hands as far as what to do about the attacks posted on AutoAdmit.

One woman e-mailed the University of Pennsylvania Law School associate dean, Gary Clinton, in February to ask for his help in persuading Ciolli remove the offensive threads. Clinton told her that since he became aware of AutoAdmit two years ago, he has had “numerous conversations about it” with Penn officials. “I’ve learned that there appears to be little legal recourse that we have as an institution,” he wrote. He said he has had several conversations with Ciolli and has “pointed out time and again how hurtful these ad hominem attacks can be to individuals, and have asked him to delete threads.” The effort, he noted, “has been largely unsuccessful.”

Some of the people slagged on AutoAdmit sought the services of Reputation Defender, and online service that (for $30 a pop, or a monthly fee) will “search out all information about you and/or your child on the Internet.” AutoAdmit’s operators didn’t think much of Reputation Defender’s efforts, and issued a challenge in response.

AutoAdmit refused to take down the content about law students who complained, and Google merely “cited its policy that the Web site’s administrator must remove the material to clear out the search results.” Numerous complaints to Google did lead the site operater to remove Google ads from the site, thus losing its main source of revenue. But the site is still running and the operator says there are “far more important things” to worry about than the anonymous personal attacks posted on the site.

That, of course, depends on who you are and how vulnerable you are to the same kind of cyber-smearing. Here’s a quick way to check. Do you have a pulse? If so, you’re as vulnerable as anyone else. If not, you’re slightly less vulerable than the rest of us. If you have a blog, a MySpace account, a Facebook account, a Flikr account, ever posted on Usenet, or joined any social networks where you’ve shared information about yourself, or just searched for information online… Well, you get the idea by now.

Being a kid doesn’t get you off the hook either, thanks to the invention of cyber-bullying.

On this new frontier, instead of just four or five classmates looking on, by using instant messaging, e-mails and social networking Web sites to harass and humiliate, bullies expose victims to a potential audience of millions.

Seventy-five percent of middle school students say they’ve visited a Web site bashing another student. Despite that alarming number, just 15 percent of parents say they’ve even heard of cyber-bullying.

To paraphrase one of my favorite movie lines: These days, if you can achieve puberty, you can achieve a reputation online.

Once upon a time, only famous people had to worry about stuff like this. John and Elizabeth Edwards just shared publicly just what would otherwise have been very personal news about Mrs. Edwards’ health. But even people as high profile as the Edwards live with the reality that everyday citizens not only have the power of media at their fingertips, but also have the protection of anonymity.

In this era of candidates as open books, they had no choice. More than ever, the personal lives of the candidates running for president – for better or worse – have been brought to the forefront. And voters, more than ever, demand such transparency.

“Some of this has to do with the new reality of politics. Whatever happens, it is now best for a candidate to tell it all, tell it early and tell it himself,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior scholar at the University of Southern California’s School of Policy, Planning and Development. “It’s far better for Edwards and his wife to tell the story in the way they want to tell it than to have the blogs kind of speculating how ill she is.”

It’s not just the new reality of politcs, It’s reality period, and we all live with it. You don’t even have to be famous anymore. In fact, online buzz that you don’t know about can make you famous; if only just famous enough to cause you some trouble. At least not until the next online revolution.

Reputation 1.0 is all about working through the ramifications of what we post, what we support, and the viewpoint that corporations might have when considering us for employment. For the viewpoints that our girlfriends or boyfriends parents might have of us when they check us out on line. That our friends and families might think of the things that we are doing now, that later on might come back to haunt us.

The person that codes the solution for Reputation 1.0 takes Web 3.0 and owns it.

Media and Web 2.0 is all about public exposure.

Web 3.0 might be all about getting our data that we voluntarily contributed to the internet off the internet.

Right now, we’re all stuck somewhere between the various iterations of Web *.* and Reputation *.*, and we may all have to do our own reputation management. The good news is this: if you’re already engaged online in the ways mentioned above, and you’ve did the Google search at the beginning of this post. you’re way ahead already. That’s because being engaged online, whether on your own blog or in an online community, makes part of the conversation. And that means that if someone’s talking about you online, you can talk back, possibly even louder than them.

9 Comments

  1. I was in a small Mexican town, where I heard about a professional maligner service.

    Someone who’d started up a small private English school had cheated one of his partners. So the partner hired the maligners. They had a pickup truck and a loudspeaker. They drove very slowly back and forth through town for several days, yelling through the loudspeaker about how the guy was a cheat and never to be trusted.

  2. This is where sharing a name with a celebrity comes in handy 🙂 Of the top 30 Google links, one is to my blog – the other 29 to stuff related to the actor.

  3. this is such a really important thing to me! ..i work hard to make sure that anything that comes up when i google my name is true ..my reputation is my lifeblood.. a girl had to make a living!! … but it is getting harder and harder…id be the last one to sensor anyone….
    i just dont think folks understand the ramifications of stuff they post!!

    thanks for bringing it to folks attention..
    xoxo

  4. One problem with doctors blogging online is that it’s really hard to completely mask who you’re talking about. There are always little clues in your writing, so that if someone else knows the doctor — they might use the clues to figure out who the patient is.

    At that point, the doctor has broken his/her agreement to maintain doctor-patient confidentiality.

  5. I tried that…put in my name. Nothing about me (though a Stephen Alex ******** was arrested for possessing drug paraphenalia in Sullivan County, VA)

    Added state. Nothing. Added city, got my address.

    Guess I’m not important enough to malign. 🙂

  6. There is no way to put the technological genie back into the bottle, but we can protect people from some of the ramifications of this. I think we need new anti-discrimination laws that limit the use of Internet search information in employment decisions. At the very least, an employer should have to disclose what information they get from googling and allow the applicant/employee to explain or refute it.

  7. Pingback: What I’m Reading When I’m Not Pretending to Blog at Faux Real

  8. I have a policy of flooding the internet – if you search on my name, you get fourty-two thousand hits according to google (though you can only navigate to a few hundred of them for some reason). Given the fact that my name is unique, every single one of those google hits is somehow connected to me.

    No, seriously, I live in a country with strict privacy laws, and where potential employers don’t have a tendency to google names, so I am not really at risk, unless I decide to try my luck in the US. Still, I’m careful not to disclosure anything about my work or my friends. One thing is that I’ve decided to have an online persona, they haven’t, so I feel that I have an obligation to ensure that they still have that choice.

  9. Last night, Georgian troops committed what amounts to an act of aggression against Russian peacekeepers and the civilian population in South Ossetia.
    Please read this http://digg.com/politics/Dmitry_Medvedev_made_a_statement_on_the_situation_in_Ossetia
    You’ve got to know the truth.

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