Managing Reputation in the Social Media Chaos

Reposted from December, 2008

Think about the implications to reputation of an online world where more and more people and businesses spend a predominant amount of time interacting. A place where opinion, influence, anonymity, persistent data, ad-based search engines, few regulators, and criminal interests coexist and intersect at an unimaginable scale.

Is this person safe to date?

Will this surgeon heal me?

Is it OK to give my credit card number to this Web site?

Can we trust this outsourced manufacturer not to exploit our trade secrets?

Should I believe this scientist’s warnings about global warming?

Is this published content an opinion or the truth or a lie?

What’s the best software for my enterprise content management needs?

There’s a reputation corollary to Moore’s Law which states that ‘the sheer numbers of opinions will soon exceed any reasonable attempt to analyze them’; and that Reputation algorithms will have to constantly adjust to ultimately score the perception of corporate, individual, or product character versus attributes that contribute to actual character. Simply put, hype beats out reality. Moreover, the speed at which a reputation can be concretely made or ruined by means of Internet promotion will become calculable (and therefore monetized) by 2010.

It is a truism that even professional people who need to use it really begin to relate to technology only when it relates to their personal interests. And so is it the case with me. I became interested in reputation management technology not after discovering and helping to manage the risks faced by my clients, but instead after the Internet taught the kid next door how to steal my bike in 2004. Prior to that moment, I gave little thought to how quickly the seemingly ineducable truant might become a threat in any way. But, as Mark Twain suggested even in the day when the capacity of information delivery technology was agonizingly limited: “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.”

The fact is that the truth got its boots on in 1992 when the first stories about how to pick a Kryptonite bike lock with a Bic pen broke on BBC-TV. Then the truth failed to depart – like a Phileas Fogg of its day – for its visit overseas to the very doorstep of my then-five-year-old neighbor. It would take another 12 years before the single truth registered there, and all the lies that I’d succumbed to about the lock’s impregnability became apparent. Until that point, had any search engine – Google or Yahoo or AOL – been queried about “bicycle locks and security”, the results would have been overwhelming and favorable regarding Krytonite bike locks. Now, the many opinions and reviews and stories shared for decades unraveled compellingly quickly to reveal a new truth… these locks could not protect themselves, much less an expensive bicycle. Moreover, YouTube posts gave instruction in how to pick or break the lock using a variety of tools – just in case a cheap pen wasn’t handy at the moment. Perhaps you’ve got a potato chip? How about a kazoo? And so I knew, too, that my cherished Schwinn might be taken from its place in my garage and sold to some little thug across town for a few dollars.

Granted, the company offered a buyback program as well as a reengineered product in response to the clamor, but I suspect the costs were huge in dollars and trust. I now carry twenty feet of chain weighing forty pounds and secure my bike with a lock more resembling an anchor or anvil and still feel unsettled when leaving the whole mess on some lamppost. I suppose this qualifies as emotional damage and I might be able to sue either Kryptonite or the Kid. But I have other causes for concern and little time to invest on my own behalf any longer because one of my clients now faces business losses stemming from technology that far exceed what I’d thought possible. The truth is now again in its boots and the number is somewhere near $10 Billion dollars, according to the value of its reputation expressed by a recent client.

Now, imagine this moment: I am engaged to provide an executive briefing to the CIO and his colleague at a major multinational enterprise. Though the initial invitation seemed more focused on some secret technology investments, it becomes clear that something else is bothering the two executives as the meeting progresses. Their combined demeanor is close enough to panic that I can’t ignore it even given my limited capacity for empathy. Did I mention that this particular company has global business interests and huge dividends that have accrued over decades owing to the ruthless power-mongering of a small cadre of leaders seemingly intent on unimaginable personal wealth gained partly by leveraging the lowest possible wages and most limited opportunities for advancement of its workforce – not to mention the questionable quality and safety of its products and services?  At least that’s what the Web message boards are saying. I know… could be anyone these days. Even some countries match this profile. Perhaps more detail, then.

We are sitting in the office of the head of risk management. Not the typical technology executive’s digs. This one is more scholarly/lawyer-ey but not without a few of the explorer-type trophies won by the big game hunters of the distant past. In his case, they were lucite-encased contracts and other documents signifying his legal acumen and forecasting ability. Both the CIO and the lawyer seem eager to get past my initial presentation. No comments or questions, just the ‘hurry up’ faces of people with limited interest and time. I wonder why I’d bothered to wear a clean shirt and tie my shoes correctly. I had initially hoped my old-school blazer and tie would tell them that I understood their clubby culture and could therefore relate to their technology interests. But it becomes immediately clear to me that we aren’t at all part of the same collegial business tribe after I ask, “I know you’ve got something else on your minds. Would you like me to stop now so we can talk about it?”  And they nod.

If you’ve ever looked into the bright eyes of a child with a fever – unable to adequately express his discomfort and begging for relief – you might think I would have been more sympathetic than I was. But if that same child was able to then speak the words, “To what extent have we secured you? Are we under a non-disclosure agreement? Would you be willing to sign one now?” you might react as I do. With a cringe and suddenly aware that time passes slowly for the cornered animal. I indicate that we are covered by a general confidentiality policy between my company and its clients and that all I hear would remain secret. At least until now.

I’ve summarized the findings in a number of research notes and encourage enterprises and individuals to review the emerging best practices in enterprise Internet reputation management I’ve posted to Gartner.com: http://tiny.cc/Toby

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