Belfast Telegraph

Why we need to tread carefully with our digital footprint

By Mary Kenny

There is some evidence that young people are becoming more prudent in their habits and lifestyle. If so, this is because the word has got around that "reputation is everything", and a foolish appearance on social media may well be stacked against you in years to come when you apply for that very responsible job as CEO of some worthy corporation or charity.

Reputation, reputation - how often we used to be warned, as schoolgirls, that a lady's reputation was priceless? Lose your reputation, and you're done for. Othello said something similar: "Good name in man and woman … is the immediate jewel of their souls." A bad reputation condemns individuals and their families - whole neighbourhoods have been damned for a negative or poor reputation.

It's not always fair, but the reputation thing is right back with us because of the internet, and particularly because of Michael Fertik's globally influential ideas.

Fertik, formerly of Harvard Law School, is an American management guru, founder of a "digital reputation" company and author of the book on The Reputation Economy. His thesis is that everything that anyone has ever written on Facebook or LinkedIn, everything ever tweeted or put on YouTube, can now be stored forever. And subsequently retrieved, and served up as "troves" of future information.

When you go onto Facebook, Fertik says, somebody, somewhere is likely to be monitoring you. Algorithms are being developed which will enable total digital access, so just assume that everything you message is being recorded.

Never, he warns, put any personal confessions onto social media. Never transmit some jokey anecdote about how wasted you were at the weekend, how you woke up in bed with some bearded stranger in a bondage scene, or had a bit of a lark putting powder up your nose. However "hilarious" you think it might strike your pals - just bear in mind how it will reflect on your CV when the "reputation engines" regurgitate this information just when you've decided to go into politics or business.

The internet "reputation engines" are a little like the Recording Angel of legend. So "be smart about social media". But don't make the mistake of withdrawing from Facebook or other sites - because that, too, could be grounds for suspicion.

The trick is to "curate" your electronic reputation cannily. If there is some youthful folly you would rather not have brought to light, create a lot more narrative around it, or embellish the facts with a flood of positive information. The information is being gathered by a machine, so confuse the machine as much as possible.

But pretty soon now, everyone's profile will be available through a "reputation search engine"; whether they have ever defaulted on a debt, whether they have a reputation for trashing hotel rooms, whether they are perennial "no-shows" at restaurants booked. Your dating score will be noted, as your credit rating already is.

Even more sinister, the "reputation engines" will also factor in your friends. If you have louche pals who renege on their loans, or are known to be obese, this may leak into your reputation. As they say "birds of a feather flock together." If your friends are flakey, you too are likely to be, say the algorithms.

But there's a positive side to this "reputation economy". It has enabled successful enterprises like Airbnb, whereby couples or families rent out their homes to perfect strangers, safe in the knowledge that they can track the strangers' reputations.

If you get a good reputation as a guest, you will get many more offers, and maybe discounted prices; but a bad reputation will soon diminish your chances.

Soon people will be able to "check their reputation balance", just like we check our bank balance. We will be able to watch our "reputation balance" go up or down, too.

In some ways, the "reputation economy" means the end of private life. Or maybe it's like going back to a nosey-parker village society - the Valley of the Squinting Windows - where the postmistress listened in to every phone call, and the dates between a wedding and a birth were calculated with hawk-eyed detail.

Yet if those restrictive village societies were narrow and controlling, they usually had less crime because there was so much surveillance going on.

Could the "reputation economy" reduce crime nowadays? Could we "track" violent individuals - to halt domestic abuse, and indeed homicide?

There's always a good side to any development. But excuse me now while I go off and "curate" my "digital footprint" just as Maestro Fertik orders.

Belfast Telegraph


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