reputation management" is reminiscent of the political term
"spin control." But the Internet is not traditional media, and
opportunities for controlling one's reputation are quite different
in theory unlimited, but in practice limited by an almost
inherent lack of focus, and the countervailing weight of mainstream
17 , 2003 | In the beginning, there was email, available
to a restricted group of mostly academics via ARPAnet. (Bitnet came
later, Usenet much later.) In that milieu of individuals, either
you were eminent enough to be universally known, or you were not.
In the former case, your reputation was probably fixed. If you
were an unknown, your reputation rested almost entirely on
what you yourself distributed. Helpful, hateful, technically sophisticated
or utterly inept, readers soon had a make on each other to
the extent people cared to reveal their true nature.
With the discovery that emails could be threaded, discussion groups
arose, and reputations were formed more quickly.
Those lists expanded to include Usenet with a parallel spread
of bulletin boards and were later emulated on the Web. As
is still true today on pseudo-private forums such as chat rooms
or password-needed discussion groups, people revealed their nature
surprisingly often, though with the larger groups, reputations were
less fixed. Even more, reputation began with what you posted, including
flames. (Flaming began almost immediately in ARPAnet email, and
modern Web-based discussion groups are little different.) So even
before the Web, Usenet was affecting the reputations of individuals,
and starting to affect organizations and agendas.
The initial years of the Web continued to show that freewheeling
expression. People revealed the most startling details of their
past, photographs of their children, etc. I suspect that the "Wow,
no cops!" initial reaction to the Internet created a subconscious
assumption of "no criminals." (Meanwhile, companies like AOL were
witnessing sex chat that made flames look tame.)
With the web came serious e-commerce. Well, actually, what came
first was the amateurish attempts of mom-and-pop businesses to flog
their wares and services on the Web. Many did surprisingly well.
From bed-and-breakfast joints to custom fishing equipment, these
naive beginners simply told it as they knew it in plain HTML, showed
what they had to sell in images, and surprisingly often, succeeded.
Big business discovering the Web was a completely absurd affair.
It was particularly ludicrous to observe the certain failure of
the travel industry's initial efforts to parlay a traditional sales
model of print/air advertising followed by telephone or face-to-face
contact onto their Web sites.
The travel industry, from airlines to hotels to car rental agencies,
has traditionally depended on extremely "fluid" pricing to generate
its profit margins. In their standard modus operandi, the closer
the customer was physically, the more hotels and rental car agencies
would charge them. There are more precise strategies, such as airlines
putting the screws to short-notice travelers, usually business people
or offering discounts to low-income or repeat customers
but a bulk of profit margins came from demanding full "rack rate"
of those in immediate need.
The trouble was, their sales model depended on face-to-face contact,
buttressed by the charm or pushiness of the sales person, or at
least a telephone conversation, with prospective customers who are
usually too polite to hang up on the sales person.
And here, suddenly, came the Web where credible writing
was king, and where travel agent hype met the awesome power of the
"Back" button. On this playing field, "sales collateral", a.k.a.
bushwa, was promptly and derisively named "brochureware."
And indeed, why should brochureware have sold anything? Tests of
the human ability to detect lying routinely return to a curious
truth: when test subjects are given mixed messages by eye, facial
expression, or body posture they begin to reject the cues, often
with disgust, and begin to concentrate on the logic and credibility
of what the speaker is saying. On the Web, customers were faced
with no message other than words and usually superfluous graphics.
So they concentrated on the words.
To the salesman, this is a cruel world indeed. The warm handshake,
the engaging gaze, the practiced body language, the seamless integration
of body language and sales patter all are wasted.
In the end, it came down to the ugly scenario of price competition,
where the travel industry actually had to tell the public what the
service cost, right online and the companies that cut to the
chase soonest, were the first to regain their reputations.
By contrast, catalogers "got it" right away. They were slow coming
to the Web, because direct marketers are cautious, and didn't throw
money in programmer's laps until they understood the medium. But
they certainly understood reputation management.
L.L. Bean came to the Web with an impeccable reputation of 90 years
of quality goods, excellent service, and unconditional guarantees.
SeaEagle came to the Web with an mixed reputation as a manufacturer
of low-cost inflatable boats. To the yachting crowd they were downscale,
to the recreational user they were excellent value.
Regardless, both Bean and SeaEagle played it the way they always
had before the Web: show what you're selling, tell what it costs,
guarantee it 100%, and answer the phone. And if the visitor has
any doubt about their responsiveness, it is quickly dispelled when
they astonishingly find a toll-free telephone number on the home
Thus the L.L. Bean's home page quickly confirms their off-line
SeaEagle, less known, played it more aggressively, placing their
toll-free number on the top of the home page, and developing a series
of photo galleries and videos showing the durability of their boats
(much like the highly credible and popular Timex watch TV commercials
of the 1950's: "Takes a licking and keeps on ticking.").
And both companies succeeded, as the Fortune 500 floundered, and
the dot-bombs sank beneath the waves.
All told, in the world of e-commerce, reputation management is
extremely easy, simply because so many are doing it badly. In fact
it is fairly easy to go from no reputation to a good one merely
by selling a good product and treating customers well.
(I am overlooking email spammers here, since they have no reputation
other than pond scum, and probably never will. Not that they care
for any given product or service, they make their money on the
0.00001% of the target audience that does not despise them.)
the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose
of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person
Outside of e-commerce, the Web is presently a fairly weak means
of enhancing one's reputation or agenda, because it provides no
means for massive, coherent, "on message" propaganda.
Edward Berneys wrote in his 1923 classic of opinion manipulation,
Crystallizing Public Opinion, that in the 1920s, Thomas Paine's
American Revolution bombshell Common Sense would have no
chance of molding public opinion by the mere act of publishing and
100 years after the revolution, with America grown from 13 states
to 1/3rd of a continent, Abraham Lincoln was accused of cannily
redefining America as a nation rather than a confederation of states
while giving the Gettysburg Address.
So even fewer words turned the opinion of a much greater population.
However Lincoln had a few things going for him that Paine did not.
The country in fact was in process of becoming a nation;
he was the moral leader of the North, as well as president; in Lord
Curzon's comment, the Gettysburg Address was one of "... the three
supreme examples of eloquence in the English language"; and not
least, the newspapers all reprinted it.
Naysayers might point to Eric Raymond's "The Cathedral and the
Bazaar" to show that both idea and reputation can spread by the
Internet alone, but in fact that paper received tremendous leverage
from mainstream media, for several reasons.
First, users had already started turning against Microsoft, the
tech columnists had started bashing them, and the Feds were building
a monopoly case. Second, it was a "made for media" David-and-Goliath
story, with Eric Raymond adroitly playing it out as "Obi Wan Kenobi
vs the Evil Empire." Third, Raymond is broadly considered a highly
effective publicist by many in mainstream media: he responds promptly
to media inquiries, answers thoughtfully, and in media lingo
"gives good quote."
Not including Raymond in this I don't know him well enough to
form an opinion I have yet to see a publicity hound gain prominence
through the Internet alone. Every one I know has augmented Internet
posts with media savvy, networking, personal emails, phone calls,
and pressing the flesh. (Kissing babies is still a talent reserved
Perhaps less obvious, it is equally difficult to spread disinformation
on a grand scale.
Hate campaigns are surprisingly unsuccessful with the masses. Certainly
hate sites attract the like-minded, and for awhile got good mainstream
media attention. But again, the "Back" button. On the Web there
is always another "channel." The ethnic slaughters in the wake of
Yugoslavia's disintegration were largely blamed on inflammatory
talk radio and the absence of contrary opinion.
On the Web, there is no booming, charismatic, monopolistic voice
of the talk show host. Pictures may tell, but in the end words do
the talking, and on the Web there are many voices doing that talking.
It is the difference between radio host Rush Limbaugh's hypnotic
hold over rural areas of America, and his status as a figure of
fun wherever radio audiences have an alternative of major radio
stations including more intelligent, rational radio commentary.
Likewise the U.S. government's "War on Drugs" nonsense could never
have spread through the Web; it took the complicity of thousands
upon thousands of deadline-driven mainstream journalists carelessly
repeating government propaganda (that the man-on-the-street overtly
accepts, but does not really believe).
A blogger may suffer deadline frenzy, but a blogger is not exactly
tuned to the concept of publishing nonsense simply because it comes
from a government source.
In a similar vein, at present it would probably be impossible to
spread a false "oil shortage" story through the Internet, as the
American oil companies and mainstream media did in 1973. In fact
the Internet would probably demolish such propaganda in days. In
1973 it was not until months later that a merchant marine officer
told me how his oil supertanker had been held off the New Jersey
coast for six weeks at the height of the "oil shortage."
Today, he would have emailed Matt Drudge. So would have refinery
workers from all over the U.S., telling how their storage tanks
were filled to the bursting point. Far from supporting the powers
that be, venues such as Yahoo! would be confronted with the choice
of headlining Drudge as well as mainstream media or losing a
chunk of their credibility.
Conversely returning to individual players an individual
or organization's power to demolish their own reputation has been
vastly enhanced by the Web. Verisign went from an almost unknown
entity to one of the most hated Web companies in little more than
a year, referred to in discussion as "Veriscum," "Verislime," and
other less savory names.
In decades of monopoly arrogance, national and local telephone
companies failed to achieve anywhere near the same level of loathing
(even though national long-distance phone companies' subcontractors
invented slamming, and many regional telephone companies aid and
It would be difficult to find a reason other than Verisign's own
actions and manner of dealing with customers ... with the word spreading
through discussion. (The InterNIC, while it offered wretched customer
service, at least had the shield of being geekish, and no one expected
good customer service from geeks.)
Usenet archives probably remain the best investigative tool for
establishing a bad character's bad side. I've been startled how
often a purportedly sincere if misguided character reveals himself
to be a monster of hatred in old Usenet posts. And if they were
smart enough to avoid that, why, like as not some public-spirited
citizen has done it for them. Ditto organizations; if your car is
a lemon, you'll find it trashed on Usenet.
Of course "xxxxsucks.com" sites are still around. I don't think
they have the power they used to; the mainstream media no longer
covers them, and in any case enough of them are so kooky that the
genre has become somewhat tainted.
On the other hand, some more sober "contrarian" sites are excellent,
like Downside.com. They, and
the "scambuster" genre of web sites, have surely benefited from
the increasing precision of the better search engines. When they
name names, the search engines quickly turn up negative information,
much as one can find on Usenet.
Evolution of Online Opinion
"Reputation management" has many connotations on the Internet.
I suspect the term itself hails from a 1998 Jakob Neilsen column
on "reputation managers."
Many of these reputation managers involve rating methods, from
Epinions.com's Web of Trust, to eBay's ratings (and huge anti-fraud
department), to Slashdot.org's highly-evolved Meta Moderation system.
These seem important to devotees of those web sites, and techies
in particular are entranced by voting schemes. However, compared
to the vast readership of a reputation manager like the Associated
Press, with tens of millions of readers, or newscaster Paul Harvey,
with enormous credibility and over 10 million devoted listeners,
they are but a drop in the bucket, promising though they may be.
This stands to reason. Mainstream media, by the "permission of
the marketplace", is for practical purposes a push technology
unless people start throwing their morning paper in the trash unread,
and put the radio and TV in the closet.
To form an opinion based on reading Epinions or Slashdot takes
a lot more work than soaking up a newspaper headline or drooling
in front of the six o'clock news. On Epinions you have to read the
various reviews and weigh them against each other. On Slashdot one
has to read the original article, and think, or at least wade through
The consequence is that mainstream media still dominates public
opinion and reputation molding because it is brief, consistent,
and seemingly coherent. It's the difference between a floodlight
and a laser. The floodlight may illuminate more broadly, but the
coherent, parallel light of a laser punches through steel.
The collapse of the Estrada presidency in the Philippines is not
to my mind a proof that the Web, or wireless text messaging, is
about to shift that dominance in the immediate future since other
wireless-organized demonstrations have been as chaotic as the Filipino
demonstrations were focused. Reasonable enough in LDCs the social
dynamics are quite different from G-8 nations suffering massive
information overload. (You have to live through a good uprising
or two to really appreciate how fast revolt becomes a national mania.)
I think this balance will alter, despite growing backlash from
mainstream media, though I have utterly no idea how. I don't think
we can look to Google turning itself into an opinion-molder, "Pagerank"
notwithstanding. A Blogworld? The-Wireless-Web-to-the-max? Peer-to-peer?
Or maybe something will come out of nowhere, much as the Web seemed
to. Perhaps like HTML itself, it will be one little inspired piece
of coding, such as bi-directional links, that transforms the Internet
into a place where reputations are made as easily as they are harmed.
The chaos of the bazaar may spread a meme but not a consistent
image. The online medium (or protocol, or social model) that defines
reputation will not be as narrow as a laser beam. Yet it must have
the attribute that moves mountains: the convergence of opinion.
One might hope that such a convergence leads on to the amplification
of intelligence, rather than mere herd behavior, and lifts humanity
to a new level of reasoning.
Nicholas Carroll has a background in code, foreign affairs, mainstream
media, marketing and the Internet. He is an information architect
with Hastings Research.
He can be reached at email@example.com.