Some months ago I went on a bit of a rant in a post ostensibly about User Generated Content (UGC) against online sites that were, in my view, providing a dangerous outlet for irresponsible and unsubstantiated charges against businesses and professionals by anonymous posters. This subject has taken on renewed interest in the wake of the launch of new online services that will allow people to post comments on others’ personal reputations, as opposed to just feedback on businesses and professionals.
TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington has just done me one better with a thoughtful piece on the evolving nature of online reputations and how, according to Mike, we all need to just lighten up and embrace our indiscretions. While I applaud Mike for his somewhat Zen-line perspective on how to navigate a world increasingly open to mischief when it comes to reputations — one’s own and other people’s – I question some of his prescriptions.
To take liberties with an old cliché, in the future there will be two types of people – those whose reputations have been trashed online and those whose reputations are about to be. In truth, the notion that all of our online reputations will eventually be tarnished is not that extreme when one considers the avalanche of online data about every person remotely connected to the digital world and the freedom with which others can, legitimately or mischievously, add their own narrative – anonymously, of course.
Arrington would argue that the sheer volume of data that will be attached to our online reputations ultimately dilutes the value of online reputations in general. Thus, to fret about negative feedback from customers, or ex-employees, or bad dates, or old roommates, is unnecessary and unproductive. Data will level the playing field, so goes the logic. The bad stuff will be counterbalanced with the good — assuming others will come to your aid online — and the result of all your feedback will average out along with everyone else’s. The net of this will be that online reputations will become more and more meaningless, so why worry?
Interesting point. Where I would differ is that this “free market” or laissez-faire approach, predicated on data self-cleaning the good with the bad, will take a good long time and presupposes that fair-minded, well-meaning people will be equally vocal as people complaining or wishing to do us harm. As any restaurateur knows, this is hardly the case. Gripers always make the most noise and trump satisfied patrons. Happy customers usually just pay the check, push in their chairs, and go about their business; they will rarely take the time to sing your praises online — and certainly not as fervently as those who felt ill-treated and have an ax to grind.
Conceptually, I like the notion that the sheer volume of online information about us all (coming soon to a website near you!) will somewhat self-inoculate. I can’t be all that bad, the logic goes, because look at all the other people accused of being a lousy friend, noisy next door neighbor, inattentive date, sloppy kisser, or bad tipper. Moreover, I appreciate the Zen-like perspective of accepting our flaws — the idea being that the bad stuff we’ve done is going to come out anyway so why not just embrace it, neutralize it, and move on? Sounds very New Age and I’m sure it would have saved countless political careers over the past decade that have come to ruin over allegations that might have had a more muted impact had the offenders shrugged them off instead of resisting mountains of evidence. As the saying goes, it is rarely the act; it is more often the cover-up.