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Reputation, Interrupted

So you’ve built a reputation and advanced a career and your good name and now somebody on the Internet decides to tear you down. (That’s your story anyway). And some folks are now wondering if you’re really the skunk you’ve suddenly been exposed to be by some semi-anonymous source.

What do you do? Well, you might turn to "reputation management" from software and/or service providers that include ReputationDefender, ReputationManagementConsultants and PositiveSearchResults.com. The latter promises "Negative search results gone in 30 days!" like pest removal with a guarantee and a phone number in its paid Google placement.

But it is a serious market. For a monthly fee that will range from a few dollars to thousands, these firms will do anything from try to push down unflattering search engine results to actively create positive publicity campaigns for clients. It’s an industry you tend to know about or not, but The Washington Post took it seriously enough to give it a feature story.

The downside that The Post and others gloss over is this: the cause and effect of hiring a service to modify and "correct" your online reputation has no connection to whether you are a good or bad person, because both might logically turn to a reputation management service. All it does is add another filter and opportunity for subterfuge and misrepresentation.

And the fact that good or bad happens by degrees has to be causing night sweats for the vendors and businesses now banking on social CRM tools to uncover the realities of customer sentiment and your business’s image. On the other hand, reputations true or false (or both) are all useful to know about. Otherwise we’d never have dreamed up the term “devil’s advocate.”

As a feedback vehicle, the Web created business for innumerable blogs and news services like SlashDot or Drudge. Like a stock exchange, these are almost always secondary markets that comment on things thought up or originated somewhere else.

You will hear reputation services advertised on satellite and AM talk radio, which makes sense when you consider that's a venue where a lot of loud people who like to be controversial tend to stir things up to the point of libel. It also leads you to believe that people using these services are at least going to include the arguing types likely to be biased going into any given discussion before it starts.

Commentary on the Web is even easier to hurl as you run for cover of anonymity without a trustworthy signature or voice stamp left behind. So much commentary and response on the Web is driven by personal ideology -- or vituperative railing against someone else’s -- that everyone comes to set a threshold for dialogue that reaches a point where it needs to be turned off.

Some will say this heralds a return to branded sources people choose to trust – because of their reputation -- even though longstanding institutional media brands of every flavor are besmirched every day by the public, not to mention competitors. What does it mean about modern commentary that everyone needs to be not only correct on every talking point, but contrary at the same time?

Perhaps it's just a deflating fact of life that so much discourse has been turned into what sounds like a nasty election campaign. Now our highest court has held that election influence too should be allowed to go anonymous and that hedge funds or oil companies or AARP are allowed to underwrite political campaigns full of smearing and misrepresentation without attaching their name to any of it.

We filter that where we have doubts because since grade school you’ve known that a bad reputation can as easily arise from malicious misrepresentation as it can from a perfectly correct observation. It isn’t fair, but it is a business model. Sometimes you’re going to have to defend yourself. But to imagine we’re going to sniff out truth, analytically stave off all the bad guys – or even the unreasoned negativity of others who live to disagree – is a stretch.

If you agree, you might not flame me below but if I’m paranoid enough I might also believe this column could disappear at any moment.

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