Sunday, November 5

The infinite memory of google, Yahoo!, Microsoft...

Before all of this story broke, I spent some time thinking about what I should do - especially around the time of late September, when my case was moving forward with the arbitrator. A lawyer friend of mine kept suggesting that the aggressive stance was a much better take on the issue - and that I should fight sooner, rather than later. My concern was two-fold: First, I was not wanting to look litigious, but I would not accept a bullying tactic that was being employed. As recommended by my HR friends, filing against the bully would look strong in the short-term, but weaken me in the long-term.

My second concern (and real concern) was what I have dubbed as the "infinite memory" of the search engines and their indices. My lawyer friend told me not to worry, this would only be a story in a small town in the center of New York State, nothing would be heard of it. Within one day of the story breaking on a radio talk-show, the story was in the national news, starting from the simple local paper (owned by Gannett) and worked its way through most media markets in New York and all the way to the AP wire and Hotline in Washington, DC.

The impact of a small story in a charged situation can have incredible ramifications long after the story fades from the public view. With the power of google (or Internet Archive or Yahoo!), the history is made by the sources that are created in the virtual world today. Your decisions are now impacted by an "infinite memory" - your reputation, your privacy, everything. How do you reconcile the impact of what you do to how history will remember?

The following post was one I worked on in late September, when I was thinking about what actions I should take. I leave it available for your consideration.

September 26th, 2006:

In my business of social consulting, I have often discussed with clients the importance of creating a history of content to create a sort of "attraction" mass - where, when potential customers are looking for the issue at hand (whether it be about car service, technology solutions, or whatever), the customer can find relevant content on their blog and/or website. Rarely do people search directly for a company name - when in search mode, they look for a concept and then discover the company. The only time people truly look up a "name" is when they have been drawn to for some purpose - whether it is an advertisement, a mention in an article or someone/something they already know.

While this is good for business when you are establishing your brand identity, the challenge is when people decide to sabotage you with scandalous content on the company. How many corporate PR firms have made their money on crisis PR when a grassroots group sets up a website and begins to attack a company? Think about the battle WalMart has played out on the web. Consider the attempt by some in the 2006 Florida Governors election where accusations were made on both of the Democratic candidates (one for not prosecuting a case that might have been inappropriate, the other for potentially being unsympathetic to the issues of African-Americans). In these cases, content is put on the web (and in other media channels) and the battle is waged.

But now, let's point the lens a little more personally. How many people do you personally know that have had their identity stolen? Their credit rating destroyed because someone has duplicated their credit card number, Social Security number or drivers licence. The financial costs can be staggering - sometimes on the order of $100K per incident. And an individual's personal reputation - can be incredibly damaging (have you ever tried to get credit when your personal credit has been destroyed by an identity thief?). And consider that these reputations lie in the "space" of financial databases and banking rules, which are managed by corporations, banks and credit reporting companies.

How easy is it to get a picture of you on the web? In the recent book, The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, Chris speaks about the power of filters and how they are growing ever increasingly powerful. I discussed the power of zoominfo in an earlier post - where you can now formulate a Internet-assembled CV on a person (check out my zoominfo here). It is that powerful.

Now what happens when people put scurrilous information about you - on the web. About you personally. What if this content insinuates, rather than being facts, about you? What if it is an allegation that is wholly unsubstantiated?

How do you fight a foregone statement?
My easiest example of this issue is the old chestnut: "Senator Rosenblatt, when did you stop beating your wife?" Consider this question and the potential answers. Is the Senator able to avoid the obvious implication? Now consider when the reporter publishes the answer. On the web. In a blog. Or on an online newspaper. Do search engines like google distinguish from an allegation versus fact?

Follow the Source
The source? What do I mean? Well, we know that some blogs have a lot more PageRank juice than others. Some sites (like the NYTimes) is not beyond publishing content from other sources that is truthful (as in coming from another source) but not necessarily about the factual basis of the issue at hand. And once content is on these sites - google tracks it, and makes it "relevant". Now, type in "Senator Rosenblatt wife" and I bet that this allegation shows up higher that the results about his wife - especially if it is a news story or gets significant play on the blogs.

This is the fear of every company and candidate on the web. But should you be afraid? Of something like personal terrorism? Can you imagine if every one of your acts were traced and recorded for all to see on the web? Let me give you an example of some of the extremes that a person might have to go through, if their reputation has been sullied.

One of my student peers got arrested for selling drugs on campus (and I am not sure if he was convicted). When I looked for him on LinkedIn a few years ago on behalf of another request, I could not find him. Later that year, I got an email from - what I thought was - someone who might be this guy or might not - his name was kind of strangely familiar. It turned out that he legally changed his name a variant of his own in order to avoid the google searches that would bring up his prior indiscretion. To this day, he is known by his new name, living his life in harmony, after his unfortunate brush with the law. But, if you search his real name with the college name added to the search query, his indiscretion is there for all to see (first hit on the results).

How important is this?
Consider the following searches into google: try typing jim davis black or rod smith rape. How many are websites? Blogs? Newspapers? As a politician, they have to manage their reputation like a hawk.

Now (dear reader), try searching your name. For me, I get a whole bunch of my company sites - and a number of other sites that are either blogs or wikis. With a name like mine, it is almost impossible to avoid the infinite memory of the search engines - and for all the world to see what my past, present, and potential future might be.

Consider how powerful the tool like google, Yahoo! Search and MSN Search really is. And if you get caught in the machine, how can you get out? How does one fight the machine? When your reputation has been sullied, how do you gain it back? And, on the blogs, the search engines: how do you fight...against an infinite memory?

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