It was all such a noble idea: the ability to talk to, learn from, and work with people from all over the world. The liberty to exchange opinions, to explore bold new ideas. The freedom to do what you want, say what you want, be who you want, without the government, the boss, or mom and dad getting in the way.
In practice, the freedom offered by the Internet has proven to be something of a double-edged sword. True, the combination of anonymity and interconnectivity has allowed millions to enjoy unprece-dented freedom of expression, from whence has sprung far more tangible freedoms (witness the Arab Spring). But it has also provided cyberbullies with a convenient tool with which to slander and vilify.
Gossip, misinformation, unverified rumour, tall tales, bald-faced lies—all of it can be found in plentiful supply on the Internet. With the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and other sites as the 21st century’s communication medium of choice, it seems we can all look forward to the badmouthing growing in frequency and expanding in volume, cached on countless servers until the end of time. Or at least until we run out of hard drive space.
Now that the Internet has developed into a powerful tool for the pursuit of wealth as well as happiness, the fabrication of untruths has become a viable business strategy. Consider the small-time restaurateur, the independent contractor, the mom-and-pop hardware store on Main Street: all rely on their online reputations—user-generated reviews, blogger recommendations, social media “likes”, and similar comments are an important competitive advantage. In an environment where what people say about you (and how they say it) can make the difference between profit and loss, it is easy to imagine how such activity could be used for less-than-pure purposes: a positive review to falsely promote a brand’s reputation; a negative review to destroy it.
For those on the receiving end of such vitriol, there is little recourse. Sure, you could manually scour the Internet for such posts, flag them for inappropriate content, and ask site administrators to get them deleted. But in cyberspace, spambots and algorithms can post hundreds, even thousands, of negative reviews and critical posts around the world far faster than you can search them out and file writs.
Uncomfortable with the “anything goes” culture of user-generated content, many popular websites have taken their own approach to protecting and policing the reputations of users. Auction site eBay encourages users to leave feedback; tech blog Slashdot has developed the concept of “karma points”; and last year, search giant Google launched a toolset to help users request expedited removal of confidential or unwanted content. While such systems are better than nothing, they are hardly bulletproof. For example, researchers have questioned whether the two-way nature of eBay’s feedback system is a reliable measure of one’s reputation: users can easily distort feedback results simply by exchanging steep discounts for positive reviews. Because sellers with a higher percentage of positive reviews are typically able to command higher prices for their wares, such gamesmanship has a direct impact on the bottom line.
For reputations requiring a more aggressive defence, there is professional help. For a fee, a reputation manager will monitor online activity and defend one’s cyberstanding from the slings and arrows of muckrakers and hacks. Part public relations officer, part computer engineer, part private eye, such specialists are quickly becoming essential staff members for celebrities, politicians, high-profile athletes, and multinational corporations looking to cure themselves of bad press.
Several firms have generated substantial profits from such services. Reputation.com, Profile Defenders, Reputation Changer, and dozens of others offer both individuals and businesses the ability to track online reputations and “combat” negative opinions, mostly by burying them underneath a mountain of positive content, often created by the company under hire. The central idea: casual users typically don’t look beyond the first page in a specific search. If they can’t find the dirt, then the dirt can’t hurt.
Such work doesn’t come cheap. Depending on the exact services required, expunging a bad reputation can run from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands annually. For those on a budget, however, there are other options. Reputation.com offers a free “reputation snapshot”: a quick survey of the Internet to see if any cybermud has been slung in your direction. Simply create a user account and the company’s servers will perform a basic web search and allow you to track who’s saying what about you.
There is no denying that the Internet at times resembles a giant high school, where mean-spirited children (of any age) can mock, tease, and intimidate without fear of reprisal. Yet in many cases, the effort to sanitize cyberspace reeks of spin, in which reputation managers are employed not to defend the maligned but to whitewash unscrupulous behaviour and sweep scandal (whether personal or corporate) under the carpet.
Clearly, there are times when reputations need to be defended: from harassment, from defamation, from identity theft. Even so, not all experiences are positive, nor are all reputations pristine. By eliminating our ability to criticize and scold, to bitch and complain, to shake our collective fists at injustice both imagined and real, we lose no small part of that freedom we were once promised. Slowly but surely, truth comes to resemble our reputations: something no longer earned, but “managed”.