Monday, July 09, 2007

Living on Glass Microscope Slides

If you missed Tom Friedman’s New York Times column last week, headlined The Whole World is Watching, you indeed missed a treat. Inspired by Dov Seidman’s new book, “How,” which is now on my reading list, Friedman notes “We’re all public figures now,” and “ ‘how’ you live your life and ‘how’ you conduct your business matters more than ever, because so many people can now see into what you do and tell so many other people about it on their own without any editor.” He goes on to quote Seidman: “We do not live in glass houses (houses have walls); we live on glass microscope slides…visible and exposed to all.”

However, with apologies to Annie Lennox, many people are living on “broken” glass microscope slides. There has been so much written about how, for example, in the work world, many young people have stubbed their toes in their job searches by not being cognizant of their online reputations. The Wall Street Journal, for instance has written about how the reputation of small businesses is increasingly being affected by the growth of online consumer reviews and how prospective students are turning to bloggers’ rankings of law schools as an alternative to the dominant rankings published by U.S. News. At the New York Times itself earlier this year, the managing editor came under fire because a number of freelancers had not disclosed potential conflicts concerning issues they then reported on … information that may have been readily available online if anyone looked.

It seems that almost every problem ignited by the march of technology inspires a solution. As Andrew Lavallee reported in The Wall Street Journal, reputation management services going by names like ReputationDefender and DefendMyName, are charging fees to expunge or downplay offensive blog mentions, embarrassing photos or critical mentions of names on the Web. One of the firms interviewed for the article charges $30 for each item that the user wants to try to correct or remove. It starts by sending polite email requests on behalf of its clients to web-site owners, and then escalates by contacting a site’s ISP about the problem. There have been some successes, such as for an identity-theft victim who had personal information published on a blog, and a medical student that discussed his own clinical depression on a public newsgroup. But these service providers have also seen their best efforts backfire and generate even more negative online dialogue.

Which gets us back to Tom Friedman’s point. The best way to minimize the risks associated with internet-enabled transparency is to assume that the whole world is watching and always — always! — strive to do the right thing.

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