How to Optimize Your Digital Footprint in a World Where Your Reputation Is Your Most Valuable Asset

LIVING ON THE GRID

Is your reputation ruined? Perhaps. And chances are great that if, indeed, insurance companies consider you uninsurable and potential employers consider you unemployable because of something in your digital “record,” you don’t even know it. Welcome to “The Reputation Economy,” the title of a new book by privacy experts Michael Fertik and David Thompson. The theme of The Reputation Economy is that soon, if not already, people know everything there is to know about you — and thus have enough “information” to define your reputation and take steps accordingly.

The Internet’s potential to hurt your reputation is not necessarily new. Clearly if your arrest makes the local newspaper, your name has been indelibly besmirched in hyperspace — but then it’s already been ruined in your community. What the digital age has changed in this example is the breadth of the impact — from your small town to, essentially, the world.

The future Reputation Economy, however, is not about general public information such as newspaper reports. Fertik and Thompson describe a 1984 world that watches every single move you make on the Internet. As they explain, “Massive digital dossiers are being developed on every individual, right down to the websites you visit and the links you click on. There is even a fast-growing underground economy of archives and data-storage sites that quietly collect records of trillions of online activities, often just waiting for someone to figure out a way to make use of all that data.”

And numerous websites are finding ways to make use of that data. Spokeo.com mines government records and address databases and makes them available. Klout goes even further, analyzing social media to determine a score on how much influence you might have. Despite some setbacks (notably Klout’s scoring Justin Bieber above Barack Obama), scoring sites are bound to become more numerous and more sophisticated.

The growth of all of these reputation scoring sites, the authors write, will inevitably culminate in “reputation engines.” “Instead of searching for Web pages with relevant information about a particular topic,” the authors write, “reputation engines will search the massive databases of personal information to return all of the relevant information about a person — or find a person who meets a set of criteria.”

It is impossible, according to the authors, to avoid becoming fodder for such reputation engines. “There’s no way to ‘live off the grid’ online,” the authors write. “The reputation engines of the future won’t have an easy opt-out mechanism, and we will all participate whether we like it or not.”

So, what to do? In essence, the authors recommend a “you can’t beat them, so join them” strategy. Don’t try to get off the grid. First, it’s nearly impossible. Even if you don’t have a Facebook page, your friends do and they’re posting pictures of you. And there will always be government records, and a variety of other digital trails of your existence.

Instead of trying to get off the grid, the authors write, it’s better to take charge of your reputation by carefully curating the information on the Internet. As with an art-exhibit curator who selects the pieces in the art show, curating your information on the Internet refers to selecting the “items” you want to highlight. For example, if there’s a picture of you and your sales team receiving an award for sales team of the month, post it. Curating also means avoiding the negative. For example, don’t use social media to insult others, the authors warn. You’ll be the one hurt in the long run. “By carefully curating and highlighting positive information — successes at work, trust among friends, a positive social life and more — you can flood the computers and scoring systems with the type of information you prefer.”

Fertik is the CEO and founder of Reputation.com. Thomas is the chief privacy officer of Reputation.com. In short, the authors of The Reputation Economy are in the business of privacy. For the majority of the reading public, who may be only dimly aware of the breadth and depth of intrusion allowed by the Internet of today — and even less aware of what awaits on the horizon, The Reputation Economy offers vital advice on how to protect yourself from harm. And even better, according to the authors, anyone can turn the threats of the reputation economy into opportunities.