TOC In search of the perfect reputation Your Turn

July 27, 2010

Pity Ben Zimmer! The author of "The Age of Undoing" may well wish he could undo an essay whose hasty title can but hurt his reputation. In this week's issue of the New York Times Magazine, Jeffrey Rosen explains to its unfortunate "on language" columnist why it will not come to pass (*). Instead of "instant reversibility [being] an inescapable facet of our digitized life", our Information Age is all about "The end of Forgetting".

It is not as if this danger had not been around for some time. King Midas could no more defend his reputation against the disparaging but truthful rumor he had donkey ears than today those who want to hide they once indulged in teenaged drinking bouts with camera ready "friends".

Lately however things have become a bit more complicated. This is an opportunity to continue our study of the Information Age. But before I forget, I want to mention an intringuing article by Bastien Hugues and Jim Jarrassé (**) which relays the warnings of François Logerot, head of the French commission CNCCFP which monitors political financing (1). The number of French parties has risen from 28 in 1990 to 296 today, it's a fact.

The undue influence of music industry lobbyists is not an American cultural exception. Think of how President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed the HADOPI law against the reluctance of his own party. But if France is no more immune to the effects of pronaocracy than the United States, money flows to campaign coffers under different names. The Americans have Political Action Committees, the French, it appears, brew microparties.

The only saving grace is that electoral campaigns cost a lot less in France than in the United States. Tony Barber should think twice before bewailing "the so-called "democratic deficit" - the alarming gap between the EU institutions and European citizens" (***), lest the cost of picking European office holders in Brussels sprout to levels worthy of Washington DC.

This parenthesis on pronaocracy was not without premeditation. For Jeffrey Rosen, three factors will shape "the future of our online identities and reputations": laws, technologies, changing social norms". Short of a revolution, a change in the Constitution at the very least, laws are more likely to protect the reputation of corporate brands than of the hoi polloi, who risk being branded for life for the greater efficiency of targeted advertising.

Take for instance law professor Paul Ohm's recommendation to "make it illegal for employers to fire or refuse to hire anyone on the basis of legal off-duty conduct revealed in Facebook postings or Google profile". This targets Catbert, the discriminating Human Resources Director. But isn't the latter ahead of the game? Isn't the trend today to control off-duty personal behavior as a way to contain employee health insurance premiums?

On the other hand Paul Ohm has shown to be skeptical about the power of technical solutions. I have my own personal reasons. Sure Facebook could protect our privacy if it wanted to. "So far, however, Zuckerberg [...] has been moving in the opposite direction." Can he do otherwise when the valuation of Facebook depends on violating our privacy?

Hence we must start by influencing social norms, the necessary background for laws and technologies to succor suppressed social needs.

Jeffrey Rosen suggests that, in a world which never forgets, what we need as a society is to learn how to forgive one another more. His approach is highly commendable but perhaps we should graft social solidarity on a stock of self-interest.

At the root of it all, "people [...] want control over their online reputation". In our Information Age, privileges come indeed from having a brand, whose value is but a good reputation. As Jeffrey Rosen adds however, "the idea that any of us can control our reputations is, of course, an unrealistic fantasy". "We can't control what others think or say or view about us". Here is an authority we should follow. But then what follows?

First we must better appreciate eprivacy. Our reputation is in others' hands to begin with, our own data is in ours until we give it away. Sure Eric Schmidt is but a hypocritical rogue, but when he accuses people "to make a mess of [themselves]", he has a point. We are gulled by the lures of free sharing, we find privacy unfriendly to our natural lazyness, we undervalue our privacy as the indispensable tool to negotiate better deals.

Second we must understand reputation is a three person game. Many are those who must make up their minds on us. Yet "our character, ultimately, [...] can be judged by only those who know us and have time to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses, face to face and in context, with insight and understanding" and such are few. Hence the person we need to impress will seek and accept the word of a recommender who declares knowing us.

Let us then expose the real nature of this most vital of social games and make society as a whole wiser about its many conflicts of interest.

Pray do tell people who take the word of a recommender to show forgiveness, but do not forget to warn them to show prudence first. Whose reputation suffered most in the recent ordeal of a "black midlevel offical [...] forced to resign her Agriculture Department job" because of "a misleading video clip" picked up on the Internet by "opinion host Bill O'Reilly"? The victim, Ms Sherrod? The original recommender, who edited the malicious video? Fox News, whose show gave it national credence? Or "Agriculture Secretary Tom Wilsack", who took the story at face value?

The reporting by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Shaila Dewan and Brian Stelter exposes both recommenders as self-declared partisans (****). More serious was Tom Wilsack's total lack of judgment. Where does he find the truth? But let us not rush to judgment ourselves. David Carr points out the role played by "the velocity that is the [Internet]'s chief feature" (*****). Fight it, you will be accused of dithering or attempting a cover-up. Faced with the micro-bubble created by Bill O'Reilly, Tom Wilsack managed it as well as Alan Greenspan (2) the financial bubble. He rode it.

To the prudent, recommenders fall in four classes. The consensual intermediaries, sought by whom they recommend and trusted by who accept their recommendation. The lawyers, paid to paint the picture most pleasant to those who hire them, like ReputationDefender for those who seek a recommendation or the background investigators hired by wary recruiters. The data aggregators, who act like neutral recommenders but refuse all responsibility lest a protest process eat away their profit. And finally the confidence men who build trust to better betray those who believe them.

The issue of course is that confidence men succeed by appearing other than they are. To uncover them, check for conflicts of interest. They do not even spare corporate reputations. Rating agencies for instance are paid by the companies they rate, insist they bear no responsibilities and yet have been elevated by the US government into consensual intermediaries. Now they are on strike according to the Lex Column (******).

Conflict free business models cost money. Taking the time to uncover the truth costs money. Yet the status quo is unsustainable and not just for those who suffer from bad reputations. Our society as a whole must recognize that paradoxically it is blowing a data bubble on inflated trust.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........... The End of Forgetting, by Jeffrey Rosen (New York Times Magazine) - July 25, 2010
  • (**) ......... Une mauvaise application de l'esprit de la loi, by Bastien Hugues and Jim Jarrassé (Le Figaro) - July 22, 2010
  • (***) ....... Farewell to Brussels, by Tony Barber (Financial Times) - July 23, 2010
  • (****) ..... For Fired Agricultural Official, Flurry of Apologies and Job Offer,
    ................... by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Shaila Dewan and Brian Stelter (New York Times) - July 22, 2010
  • (*****) ... Journalist, Provocateur, Maybe Both, by David Carr (New York Times) - July 26, 2010
  • (******) . Raters go on strike, the Lex Column (Financial Times) - July 23, 2010
  • (1) for more details, see la Commission Nationale des comptes de campagne et des financements politiques in the French wikipedia.
  • (2) for more details, see Alan Greenspan in the wikipedia
July 2010
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